Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 15-20, 2017

I had planned on writing another ashram living post several days ago but have had more health challenges. I will give you details about that later in this post, but wanted to acknowledge that I believe this one is overdue! At the same time, I know that many of the lessons that come in Amritapuri are about learning to be flexible and not attached to plans so not being able to adhere to my self-imposed timetable should not be a surprise. Amma often encourages us to be like a bird on a dry twig, ready to fly at a moments notice.

Photo Credits

I looked at the ashram Facebook page yesterday and was excited to find that it had many photos that fit this post. All of the pictures below come from that site. To see the page go to:  Amritapuri – Home. The photo at the top of this post comes from pixabay.com.

Stage Seva

In my last post, I mentioned having had the opportunity to be a prasad queue assistant. I had planned to find the sign up sheet for that position so I could do it again, but I had no luck locating it. The next darshan day, I was standing next to Chaitanya when someone walked up planning to ask her to call me. The prasad line lead had just discovered that the devotee who had the 8 p.m. shift had left the ashram earlier in the day without telling anyone she was returning to her home country.

I was asked if I would work the shift, which started in five minutes, and I agreed to do it. Sometime during the shift, I was offered the opportunity to have that shift until I returned to the U.S. I was delighted to accept it.

There were several components to the job. Not only did I have to call the people from the prasad line on the auditorium floor to come to the stage at the appropriate time, I was also responsible for seeing that any first time givers were trained and that there was always enough people sitting in the downstairs part of the  prasad line. That meant that in addition to calling people to the stage every two minutes and seeing that they sait in the right place, I had to go down to the downstairs prasad line to see if there are any first timers, train them and if necessary walk into the main hall to recruit more people.

I felt a bit muddled during the first two days, but I know I will figure it out in time.

Independence Day

Tuesday was India’s Independence Day. I understand there were several activities related to that event in the morning before I came downstairs. I didn’t see those, but I did enjoy watching the children carrying their tiny flags around the ashram. 

Tuesday meditation day

Tuesday is also the day that Amma spends with the ashram residents each week. She joins us for meditation, leads a question and answer session and then serves us lunch.

You can see from the photo above what a feat it is to feed everyone lunch in a short period of time. The photo below shows some of the devotees who put the food on the plates. The plates are then handed to Amma and she blesses the food. From there the plates are handed to devotees in lines that snake throughout the auditorium. The plates are passed in this manner until everyone has been served.

No one eats until everyone has their food. As that process nears completion, we chant a chapter from the Bhagavagita. When everyone has been served, Amma leads the meal prayer.

Tai Chi

I started a Tai Chi class on Wednesday. It meets six days a week from 7 to 8 a.m.  The teacher will be here until the end of August. He is from Spain and is an excellent instructor. I am so happy to be taking Tai Chi classes again and I can tell the practice is helping to heal my wrist.

Sanskrit chants

On the first darshan day after I arrived in Amritapuri, I was drawn by the sound of a large group doing vedic chanting. When I made it to the front of the auditorium, I saw about 100 residents chanting in unison. As I looked around the auditorium, I noticed many others participating. I understand that those who are part of the group are learning them in a class. I decided I wanted to join the chanting but not the class. Over the next few days, I found out they were chanting;

  • Dhyayamo
  • Guru Stotram
  • Guru Paduka Stotram
  • Om Ganaanaam
  • Prano devi Sarasvati
  • Ganapati Atharvasirsa
  • Mantra Pushpam
  • Na Karmana

At one point, they alternate between these chants:

  • Sri Rudram
  • Narayana Suktam
  • Purusha Suktam
  • Medha Suktam and Durga Suktam

The order of the chants above change and I think other chants are added as the class learns them. I haven’t been able to follow, or even find, all of them in my booklets, but I am able to participate enough to feel satisfied.

Hospital

Sometime last week, I noticed that there was a redness on the skin above my left eye. Over the next few days it spread. It didn’t itch or hurt, but I was concerned when it seemed to be getting worse rather than better. On Saturday I decided I needed to have it checked. We are blessed to have a small hospital on the property so I went there. Before long, I was with the doctor. She was concerned by what she saw and wanted a specialist to take a look. I thought that meant I would have to take a three hour drive to Kochi to go to AIMS, Amma’s multi-specialty hospital. I was pleased to discover that they used a different process. The doctor’s assistant took a photo and sent it to the specialist. I was then told to come back in an hour. When I returned, I sat in front of the doctor while she talked to the specialist and answered his/her questions over the phone. The specialist recommended a combination of antibiotics, ointments and an allergy med. The combination is working and my skin is significantly better. I am so glad medical care is available so readily when I am here.

This was another be a bird on a dry twig experience because I did not believe it was appropriate for me to do the stage job until the skin problem was healed. Hopefully by Wednesday I will be able to start it again.

Darshan

On Saturday evening, the darshan line was finishing sooner than Amma wanted the program to end, so she instructed the token team to give darshan tokens to visitors who had not received her hug that week. Needless to say, I was happy to be one of those peope. It had been a stressful few days for me and it was wonderful to be in Amma’s arms once again. 

Café

The café is moving into the new building on Thursday. I look forward to seeing what the new space is like. I drastically cut my sugar intake in early July so haven’t had many bakery times since I’ve been here, or at least haven’t had the cakes and cookies. I always make an exception for the Sunday morning cinnamon rolls though. Those are a priority for me. Yesterday afternoon, in a moment of weakness, I decided to have a piece of chocolate cake!

Crows/Eagle

While I was eating my chocolate cake, I watched a crow that was perched nearby. I imagined he was watching me, looking for an opportunity to take away my treat. If you leave food unattended here, a crow is likely to steal it.

At one point in the past, an eagle visited the western canteen during every meal. It perched in the rafters above the tables, patiently waiting for an inattentive devotee. If someone casually held up a piece of toast while they were talking, the eagle would swoop down and snatch it from their hand. That eagle was a regular guest at the canteen for years. In those days, even crows were known to snatch an omelet off a plate as a customer carried their food from the café to the dining hall. That may still happen, but I haven’t seen it for a long time.

Rain

One of the things I love about coming to the ashram in August is that it often rains. The rain may last only a few minutes, but it really pours. A lot of the buildings here have structures with metal roofs so the metal really magnifies the sound of the rain.  I find the sound exhilarating. I also appreciate how much cooler it is on days that it rains.

When I hear the rain now, I remember a time when I was in the auditorium a few years ago. It happened to be December, which doesn’t tend to be a rainy season, but that day it poured. Every time I didn’t think it could rain harder, it did. The rain intensified over-and-over again in a fifteen minute period. The next day, we learned that there had been devastating and deadly floods in Chennai around the same time.

The rain photo above doesn’t show the rain when it was heavy but I really liked the image.

 

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

A Welcome Sight

On the morning I arrived in Amritapuri, I looked out the window of my flat and saw two small birds sitting together in a nearby palm tree. They looked like fluffy baby birds although were not tiny. I tried to take a photo but could not get the camera to zoom close enough.

Early the next morning, I saw the same, or similar, birds in the tree. They were usually perched side-by-side but occasionally they separated. This time, I could snap close up photos.

The birds groomed each other.  At times, they were so close that if I hadn’t known better I would have thought there was only one bird in the tree.

At one point, one of them started to open its wings…

… but then tucked them in again.

Then they both flew away. Their wings were pure white and way bigger than I had thought. I believed I had been able to capture a photo of the birds in flight, but when I looked all that was on my camera was a picture of the empty tree!

At least I have the vision of their beautiful wings etched in my memory.

 

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

 

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 11-14 2017

Setting Up

I spent a good part of my first days at the ashram setting up my room. That included unpacking the suitcase I brought from Seattle and the items in the small trunks I keep here year round. I washed the clothes from the trunks in buckets. That task was made considerably harder since I couldn’t wring out the clothes with only one hand, my non-dominant hand at that. I knew I could choose to use a laundry service, but clothes dry so fast here that I prefer to do it myself. Luckily, I was in India not Seattle. I could press the items on the washing stone in my bathroom and get out a lot of the excess water. And in India, the clothes and towels would drip dry in a reasonable amount of time even though they were not rung out properly.

The morning of my first day I ordered a SIM card for my phone. I was surprised to discover I could buy a plan that included the SIM card and 1GB of data a day for 84 days for 450 rupees! Four hundred and fifty rupees is equivalent to $7.14. I sure wish we could get these prices in the U.S.

At the end of my last visit to Amritapuri, I loaned my internet stick to my daughter. She added data to it as  necessary during my absence so it stayed active during the year. As a result, I had immediate access to internet, rather than have to go through the application process. Sometimes it takes a week to get the SIM card and activate the internet stick. This time I didn’t have to wait at all for internet access and it took only about 36 hours  to get the SIM card. Once I had the SIM card, I discovered that using the Personal Hotspot on my iPhone gave me faster internet speed than the internet stick!

Changes

As always there are so many changes to see, even though I was here in January. I probably will have not seen them all by the time I leave. Construction has been endless since I first came here in 1990.

Since January, the Western café has been in a temporary structure while the new café is being constructed. They will be moving into the new café in a few weeks.

There are many changes related to security. I will mention a few of them. New structures are being built in the front of the ashram where visitors will register for the day. Residents, flat owners, and visitors staying more than 30 days will be given photo ID badges. Even the Swamis are wearing them! Visitors who are staying less than 30 days will use the receipt they are given when they check in as their form of ID. The auditorium is still open air in that it doesn’t have walls but now has white railings with some gold colored ornamentation around it.

Amma

Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday are public darshan days at the ashram. It is on those days that people come for Amma’s blessing in the form of a motherly hug. She has hugged more than 37 million people worldwide. Darshan days last from 11:00 a.m. until around midnight. At most, Amma takes a ten minute break during that time.

On Saturday night, I eagerly awaited my hug. I was so tired that I was nodding off for hours as I waited for the international token numbers to start but it was of course well worth the wait. I had a fun and meaningful time with Amma.

Earlier that day I had been asked to help with the prasad queue. Amma hands each person that comes to her a packet of blessed ash and a piece of candy. Devotees who want to hand her the packets Amma will give out form a queue. Normally, I love to hand her prasad, but with a broken wrist, I couldn’t do it fast enough, and besides, I would have trouble standing when my time was up, so that seva (volunteer work) wasn’t possible for me. When someone asked me to be the person who makes sure the prasad giver line near Amma stays full by gesturing the people in the area of the auditorium where they wait for their turn, I eagerly said yes. I have felt drawn to that seva in the past but have never done it. It gave me time to be on the stage with Amma, and the experience of being useful. I loved doing it so will find out how to sign up for other shifts.

Monday and Friday evenings Amma comes to the beach to meditate with us and have a question and answer session. I forgot about it on Friday night but went to the question and answer part last night. I love being with Amma near the sights and sounds of the beach.

Festivals

I picked the dates I would come to the ashram based on the timing of the festivals. I really wanted to be here for Krishna’s birthday, Ganesh’s celebration and Onam, a family festival in Kerala. I knew there were multiple dates that Krishna’s birthday is celebrated in India so I googled Krishna Jayanthi, Kerala and found out it was August 14. As August 14 drew near, there were no signs of the big celebration. As I remembered it, the alternate date was after I would leave India, so I was bummed. Later that night, I was excited to learn that the celebration will occur on September 12, days before I leave. I look forward to sharing all three of those events with you.

Seva

When I am in India, I like to work in the gardens and to help Chaitanya in the café. I also work on the GreenFriends newsletter we publish in Seattle each month and write for this blog. Having the broken wrist has really put a dent in my ability to do some of those things. Chaitanya had hoped I could hand out the finished orders in the cafe but I would need to have the ability to move fast, to work with both hands, and to carry items having some weight. I can’t do any of those things so that job was out.

When people finish their meals, they wash and dry their dishes and then put them in a big bucket. The dishes are then dried a second time so no water remains on the plates. I discovered that I could slowly dry dishes for a short time, so have done some of that. Yesterday I tried buttering the bread that would be used for grilled cheese sandwiches and the buns that would be used for vege-burgers and omelet sandwiches. I was able to butter about a dozen buns but was slower than molasses. Those buns would probably be used in less than fifteen minutes. Buttering the bread didn’t work at all.

So far, I have been focusing on healing and getting over jet lag. I slept a lot yesterday so maybe I will be more awake today. I hope to go visit the garden that I worked in last year today. I can at least see it!

Greenbelt restoration work

Under normal circumstances, I would probably be thinking a lot about our Greenbelt restoration work back in Seattle. Part of me would want to be there working to turn that property back into a healthy forest. Since I wouldn’t be able to do that work even if I was there, I notice that it has been easier for me to be fully here.

We will be receiving 400 trees, shrubs and ground covers to plant on that property in the fall so I hope that Ananya, the Forest Steward that is my partner in this project, and I will be able to do some long-distance planning while I am here. The photo above shows an area where a potential design for one segment has been laid out. The ferns in that area have grown after having been buried under blackberry vines for 30-50 years.

Weather

As I arrived in the ashram on Friday, it became very windy, and chilly. That seemed unusual to me. Later in the day someone else commented that they had never seen it so windy unless it was raining. It was chilly enough that in the evening I put on my jacket! The next two days were warmer. For me, yesterday qualified as HOT.

The forecast had called for rain every day, but there hasn’t been any rain since I’ve been here, at least not during my waking hours.

 

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

 

My 2017 Journey Begins

(Note: In my first post in this series, My Dream Becomes Reality, I shared a story of an event that spanned a period that started months before my trip and ended with what happened when I arrived at the ashram. In this post, I’m going to go back to the beginning of the journey itself. I encourage you to read the first post as preparation for this one if you haven’t already read it.)

My friend Ramana, who is also housesitting for me, took me to the airport early in the afternoon of August 11. This was the beginning of my 28th trip to Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India. The trip entails a fourteen-hour flight to Dubai, and after a two-hour layover, another four-hour flight to Trivandrum, India. Once there, I take a two to three-hour taxi ride to Amritapuri. The trip to India is grueling in any circumstance, but this time I would be doing it three weeks after having broken my wrist. Even the thought of going when I was essentially one-handed was overwhelming.

Normally I take two suitcases, mostly filled with supplies for other people, but this time I brought the bare minimum, one small suitcase plus my purse and  laptop. Once on board, I discovered that the flight attendants and even the passengers were more than willing to help me if I needed help. Before long, we were in the sky heading for India.

The last three years, Emirates has offered me the opportunity to purchase an upgrade to business class for the Seattle to Dubai segment of the journey. I had not done it in the past, but decided to take them up on their offer this time. It was still a tough journey but the upgrade made a huge difference in my experience.

Dubai

My friend Prarthana traveled to Amritapuri a week before I started my trip. I had not told her I was coming to India. It was fun to know that I would be surprising her when I showed up there. When I was on a two-hour layover in Dubai I received an email from her. In it she shared some of her travel experiences. When I answered the email, I didn’t mention that I was in sitting in the Dubai airport at the time I was reading it.

One of the things she shared was that the water in the toilets in the airport was heated. I found that strange, especially since I had just used one and it wasn’t heated, and I had never experienced heated toilet water there during previous layovers. Before I boarded, I used another restroom and it was abundantly obvious that the water in the toilet was very hot. Later, I learned that the heat that emanated from the toilet wasn’t because the water was heated, but rather because the weather in Dubai was so hot that the water coming through the pipes was hotter than water that would come from a hot water heater. I had noticed that the temperature in Dubai was 105 F first thing in the morning and it apparently can get to 120 F during the day. This was my first time traveling through Dubai in August.

Taxi to the ashram

It took me at least an hour to get my baggage after we landed in India. When I finally had my suitcase, I located the driver who would take me to the ashram. I am always amazed at the skill of the drivers, and their rock-solid steadiness. In India, the roads are usually filled with bicycles, motorcycles, buses, rickshaws, taxis, trucks, private cars and pedestrians. Drivers are constantly honking as they pass each other, swerving back into their own lane just before colliding with oncoming traffic. Speed limits are ignored whether it be on a highway or a village road.

I always remember my daughter’s first trip to India. She sat in the front seat and I was struck that she didn’t seem to have any reaction to this kind of driving. When I talked to her about it later, she said she had her eyes closed the whole time. She commented that it was like one big game of “Chicken.”

Two hours later, we reached Karunagappalli. We turned onto the small road that led to the beach road; the beach road goes all the way to the ashram. A few minutes later, the driver turned the car around. I didn’t understand whether the road was washed out due to the monsoons or if there was construction on the road ahead. I was glad he knew other ways to get to the ashram.

Soon, we were on the beach road. I was shocked to see how big the waves in the Arabian Sea were. I’ve been going to the ashram yearly since January 1990 and I had never seen the Sea so stormy. This was the first time I’d been to Amritapuri in August since 2003. Maybe I had forgotten what the waves were like during the rainy season.

Fifteen minutes later, we drove onto the ashram grounds. I was home.

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

My Dream Becomes Reality

For several years, I have had the desire to show up at Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India without telling my son and daughter (Sreejit and Chaitanya) that I was coming. I loved fantasizing about how surprised they would be.

Imagining it and making it happen were two different things though. My children have lived at the ashram for many years and have many friends. The chances of me registering to come and them not finding out seemed nearly impossible. Not only would word travel at the ashram, but many, if not most, of people I know in Seattle have connections in the ashram as well.

I decided in order to accomplish my goal, I would have to keep my plan secret from almost everyone, both in India and Seattle. But that still didn’t solve the problem of how to deal with registering, arranging for an ashram taxi, making sure my flat was available and ready, etc.

Just prior to attending Amma’s Chicago area programs in June, I thought of someone who might help me figure it out. Our paths crossed soon after I arrived at the program, and when I explained the situation, she immediately thought of a person who might be able to make the necessary arrangements. He was very happy to participate in creating the surprise.

Sreejit and Chaitanya were puzzled that I was not planning to come to Amma’s Toronto programs, the last programs of the summer tour. Whenever they mentioned it, I smiled inside and said no, I was not going to Toronto this year. Long before Amma’s tour ended, I booked my ticket to India.

I am a firm believer in the “Tomorrow’s not promised” philosophy. I am never convinced I will be going to the ashram until I am getting out of the taxi on the ashram property. On July 13, I fell when walking through our Greenbelt restoration project. I caught myself with my hand and broke my wrist. How could I go to India in this condition? I knew I would have to wait until my July 25 doctor’s appointment to find out if I would need surgery. On that day, I learned that the bone was healing well and no surgery was needed. The doctor supported me in taking the trip.

The next two weeks I spent preparing to go. That wasn’t easy considering I had very little use of my right hand. At least by then I was in a splint that didn’t cover my fingers or elbow. Slowly but surely, I accomplished the things that I needed to accomplish.

The weekend before I left, I spent with friends in our local Amma community. Again, I smiled inside knowing that I would soon be writing them from India to let them know I had been keeping a big secret from them.

On August 11, I stepped out of the taxi in Amritapuri. I took my belongings to my flat and soon thereafter walked up the stairs to my daughter’s room and knocked on the door. When she asked who was there, I made a nondescript sound. She opened the door and I saw the look of shocked surprise I had been dreaming of. An hour later, I walked up behind Sreejit while he was working. I stepped in front of him and saw that same look of confusion followed by excitement. My dream had been realized… they were so surprised… and we were all happy to be together again.

To view the previous posts in this series click here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Bridge

When the tsunami hit Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala, India in 2004, everyone in the village and the ashram had to be transported to the mainland by canoe. Over the next two years, Amma built a walking bridge that connected the peninsula to the mainland, so that everybody could be evacuated quickly should the need ever arise again. Last January, I took this photo of that bridge from a canoe.

And I took these when I was walking from the mainland to the ashram in December 2016.

The view from both sides of the bridge is so beautiful.

Bridge

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: Wrapping Up (Jan 2017)

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Every year, as my trip to Amritapuri is winding down I think of a statement I read decades ago in a book by Malidoma, an African shaman who lives most of the year in the U.S. In the book, Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma commented that he goes to Africa every year to learn from his elders and detox from Western civilization.

I resonated with that statement when I first read it, and I still do. For me, being with Amma, especially in India, is like taking a vacuum cleaner to my whole system. While the living and learning experiences may be difficult at times, I always see my growth when I return to Seattle. I am softer, healthier, and more able to handle the challenges that life sends my way.

When I went to India the first time, I loved it. In fact, during my first three visits, I cried every time I thought about leaving. Then there was a period, that lasted for at least five years, when I had a love-hate relationship with India. The heat and the never ending physical and emotional challenges were difficult for me to cope with. I felt on overload most of the time. Even then, though, I had a deep internal sense that it was very important for me to take that annual trip. I often used the metaphor, to myself and others, that it was like going to a doctor knowing the treatment would be painful.

Thankfully, that period passed, and for a long time now I have eagerly anticipated my yearly trip. I know that every visit will be filled with learning and adventure and that the challenges that come to me will help me grow.

It is my experience that being with Amma, whether it is in India or the U.S., increases the frequency and intensity of the life lessons that come my way, along with the ability to work through them at a faster rate. When I’m in the middle of an emotional roller coaster, the growly declaration that “this is going to be the last time I’m going to do this” inevitably goes through my mind. At least now I know that the thought is just a thought, and it will pass. I fully believe that it is important for me to continue going to Amritapuri each year, and that those visits will cleanse my mind and body, and feed my soul.

As I was preparing to leave Amritapuri this year, it occurred to me that once I retire I can go to the ashram whenever I want to go, and stay as long as I want to stay.

I almost always travel to Amritapuri in November and December, the busiest time of the year; a time when my son and daughter’s lives are filled with creating the Christmas play on top of their regular seva responsibilities. While I love seeing the play and being involved in play preparation, I am also faced with the reality that I can’t spend as much time with my adult children as I want to. When I retire, will I go to India at a different time of the year? Am I willing to miss the play in order to spend more time with my kids? Will I go earlier and stay longer? Will I go twice a year even though that would mean facing jet lag twice? I know those questions will be answered as my life unfolds.

For the last few years, I have felt an increasing desire to do panchakarma, an Ayurvedic therapy that provides deep cleansing and detoxification. Panchakarma was one of those things that I used to say I would “Never” do, but since I discovered that my high blood pressure and high cholesterol would eliminate several of the procedures I’m resistant to doing, I have felt more inclined to consider it. I have no doubt that the treatments would be in my best interest and the people I know who have done it have loved it. Maybe I would too.

If I do panchakarma, I would want to do it in Amritapuri, but I’m still resistant. I know the protocol involves staying out of the sun, rain, and wind and that I would be expected to keep the fan off in my room and to avoid other places with fans. That’s a big deal, considering I’d be in India. I also would be expected to refrain from doing seva, napping, writing, or reading. There are many dietary restrictions as well. Am I willing to make those commitments for most or all of my trip?

My biggest resistance is to the activity restrictions. As an over-doer I am stumped by how I would fill my time if I avoided doing all of the items on that list. Am I willing to give up blogging, working in the gardens, taking Tai Chi, and the other things I love doing in Amritapuri? What WOULD I do? Would I spend those weeks staring at a wall?

No doubt, I would be confronting all the garbage that is inside my mind. I would also be confronting my reluctance to simply “BE.” Am I willing to do that?

So, as I wrap up this year’s trip to Amritapuri, my mind is filled with questions. It is also filled with gratitude for all I experienced on this trip, and excitement as I look forward to discovering where the next steps in my life will take me.

 

Photo Credit: Amritapuri Facebook Page