Long Walks On Leafy Streets

5/24/2019 Miramar, San Juan, Puerto Rico
We got back to Washington, DC on Monday from the visit to Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, PA. This post is more or less a continuation of the one I wrote from there about a week ago.

I continue to look for news about my friend's condition. All of us could only hope that our friend recovers soon. As soon as I returned on Monday I went looking for a card to send. After looking at some cards at a CVS I realized that the best one for the occasion was at home. It was a blank card with a beautiful painting of a lake with lotuses and a swan and I could write my own message on it. None of the messages in the get-well cards really satisfied me. I had to resist the temptation to keep looking for a card with the right message. In this regard the stay at the Ashram seemed to have had its effect. My mind was much calmer and I was able to be more patient and wait until I got home to send the card.
There are times in your life that are like markers, when you clearly know you have made a change in direction and your way of living. There have been a few of these in my life, although much of change happens almost invisibly. I have a feeling that this stay at the Ashram might be one of those marker moments. Staying there for even three days seems to have created a sea change in my mind and my emotional being. For three days I consciously refrained from thinking too much about anything other than the moment at hand. There was no wi-fi at the Ashram and I used my smartphone only sparingly. I spent some good time with my parents, hearing about stories from our past but mostly I just enjoyed the silence and the beautiful verdant surroundings. I went to bed early, got up early and attended prayers at the temple two or three times a day. We were able to listen to a talk on Bhagavad Gita by Swami Viditatmananda (henceforth to be called Swamiji in this post). It was our good fortune to be in the presence of such an enlightened human being pretty much every day because Swamiji would attend the puja at the temple before breakfast, lunch and dinner and recite prayers himself. The word Gurukulam means 'Living and learning with the Teacher.' That is how children used to learn in India before the advent of the modern school system. The Ashram is a residential retreat center where they serve three meals every day and the idea is for people to live and learn with and from the teachers.

On Saturday (May 18) morning I went running early in morning around the big meadow just behind the main campus of the Gurukulam. I started around 5.40 so that I could finish the eight miles and go for breakfast before it closed at eight. This being the Poconos, it was a bit cooler in general and especially on this morning it was only in the upper forties. The grass was also a bit wet from the rains during the night. But the trail around the meadows (which probably used to be farmland) was mostly dry and I enjoyed the coolness and wetness. I also enjoyed the rabbits and birds moving around in the early morning. There were mountains all around and the sun slowly rose behind them as I ran my rounds. Each loop was about half a mile and I ran fifteen laps, focusing on breathing and on each step and on just enjoying the freshness of the morning. I felt very refreshed after the run and that feeling stayed with me throughout the rest of the stay.

I also walked around the Ashram grounds a lot. On one of those walks, as I was returning to our room, I felt my mind being filled with worry about how people would feel if they saw me dressed in a certain way or behave in a certain way. I realized that this has been a part of my being -- this constant fear of what other people thought. Swami Vivekananda said that among Hindus a lot of the religious practice is done out of fear. Fear of the Gods, fear of society, fear of parents, and so on. I myself grew up as a very obedient child, always afraid of what my parents or teachers would say. It is probably a combination of my own nature as well as the way I was brought up. My parents of course wanted the best for us, and they were also traditional in the way they brought us up, so I don't really hold it against them. But this realization made me feel better in a way. As I have written on these pages before, one thing I think about constantly is whether I am doing the right thing for India by living here in the US. Something in me always kept me here, and this realization at this moment was one that confirmed that my instinct was right. Perhaps India was not best for a person like me who is obedient and so affected by the environment. For better or worse, Indian society is very Darwinian, with the strong always controlling the weak. Also there are so many cultural strictures that are enforced in a very subtle way albeit without any systematic effort. A young plant needs protection to grow and in the same way I could grow and thrive only in a place where I was relatively free to do as I wanted. Even in the US I am more affected by the environment than I ought to be. So at the end of the stay I decided that I am going to try to protect my space a bit more, allowing myself more time to meditate, to be by myself and to focus on what is important and avoid unnecessary distractions.

Understanding myself better was just one of the ways in which this stay helped me. I also benefited from being in the presence of and listening to the talk of Swamiji. Listening to him talk about the Gita I was struck by how close the teachings were to that of mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. He himself reminded me quite a bit of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). It made me wish I had attended more of Thay's retreats. Swamiji expounded on a few verses from the Karma Yoga Chapter. The advice of Krishna to focus on action without regard to the rewards is nothing more nor less than mindfulness. Swamiji said it meant we are supposed to just enjoy the action itself and that is exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh also emphasizes repeatedly.

I was also curious to know if he said anything about the environment and I was heartened when he mentioned that the whole concept of duty which Krishna asked Arjuna to carry out comes from the Vedas and it comes out of the idea of giving thanks. He said that we ought to give thanks to this earth and all its living beings just as we show our gratitude to the Gods, our parents, and teachers. He also said that all of the problems of our planet including global warming come because human beings abuse their freedom and free will whereas animals stay within their roles in the ecosystem and live in harmony with nature.

Just as Thay says mindfulness is the way and the goal, Swamiji said that karma yoga or devotion to one's activism or duty would lead to freedom from suffering and bondage to one's impulses. One doesn't need to renounce everything and go meditate in the forest. It is all about non-discrimination, to use a favorite term of Thay. It means seeing that there is no separate self. I also liked what he said about Arjuna fighting against his relatives. Arriving at the battlefield the great warrior is overcome by doubts and sorrow about what he is about to do. Krishna tells him that it is about upholding Dharma. During the past few years ever since the Hindu fundamentalists took over the Indian Government, I have been feeling a certain distancing from many friends and relatives. It has made me somewhat despondent not only that they are supporting what I feel are some Adharmic (unjust and unrighteous) actions but also that they are becoming distant from me. Hearing these words of Krishna it gave me some peace of mind, that fighting for Dharma is more important than friendship or family. National and tribal identities are remnants from our Simian past. Over time, we should work towards the understanding that all humanity is one and that all are our brothers and sisters, just as our Vedas and Upanishads taught us.

Some people might disagree with my equating the Gita's teachings with mindfulness. They might say that mindfulness is just a practice while Gita is about theory. But the truth is that, As Thay says often, mindfulness is not just a practice of being present and focusing on the moment. It is not just the journey but also the destination. It would lead to the insight of no self, no birth and no death and the oneness of all creation. Every moment you are mindful you are living this insight and every moment you are not being mindful you are losing it.

In general I feel that all spiritual traditions offer the same ultimate truth. Each person may feel that their path is the true path and the ultimate path and so on, and they have the right to do so. I don't have problems with Christians saying that Jesus is the only way or Hindus saying the Vedas are the ultimate word of God and so on. It is only a reflection of their devotion to their path. I also believe that each teacher builds upon the teachings of earlier generations and adds to our understanding of life. Just as Einstein's discoveries did not make Newton's framework irrelevant, the Buddha's teachings while built on earlier Hindu philosophy does add to them. In that same vein later teachers have added to the Buddha's teachings. I don't want to believe that any one teacher had the final word on everything. While that may sound heretical to true believers, I think it is only natural that human understanding progresses with each generation. Indeed, the Buddha himself said that each person should follow his or her own light to find the truth.

The mere presence of Swamiji and the atmosphere he created in the Ashram, one of calmness, detachment, dedication and contentment, had a big effect. It made me see clearly what is superficial and what is true and essential. Although I have been against seeking fame and wealth as a matter of principle, now I see that it is childish vanity to do so. Even in noble pursuits such as fighting climate change or poverty or injustice one must be very careful to not confuse one's own ambition with altruism and be not attached to specific outcomes or approaches.

To sum it all up, this visit has helped me understand myself better and has also helped me understand the world better. My mind is freer of clutter and I hope to keep it that way. I hope that in the future, whether it is at work or at home or in the larger society, I would be able to approach everything with a clear mind, and not be attached to the results of my actions however noble the goals might be. This includes not worrying unnecessarily about what others think about me, or about whether I am achieving certain goals in life. As Thay would say, 'not have any cows.' I hope to see all as God's children in a very concrete way and not just in the abstract, and to see every action of every person as God's own, and not to react with aversion or anger to any action on the basis of my religious or political or cultural beliefs. Most of all, I hope to enjoy every moment, and simply focus on the action.

Directory Previous