As I write this, I am sitting in a pool of lamp light, watching snow fall, watching the pines and cars and the road outside fill up with white, contrasting the snowbound hush, the cocooned feel of the house, like a ship at night, with the sights and sounds and the sometimes spicy and delicate, sometimes acrid smoky smells and most of all the feeling of being in India. Contrast is a key to understanding–and not just in the senses but in the heart, in the shift from thinking in the mind to feeling in the heart. Think of what it is like to be outside in the cold and then to come in and be warm, how it can sting and burn at first. Think of what it is like to go off alone to an unknown place–now make it a place vast and complex and famous for beautiful and dangerous extremes. “Be safe,” everyone said, even in line at the gate at JFK and in the airport in New Delhi. “Be careful…Don’t drink the water.”
So off I went to India, completely divided, heart curious and mind braced for difficulties small and large. Off I went, repeating a mantra I once heard attributed to Dorothy Parker: “Adventure is just discomfort in retrospect.” I coaxed myself out the door picturing how delicious it would be to be home again two plus weeks later, cozy under a pile of blankets, reflecting on the grand adventure I had just had. As if I could go to India and not have it really touch me.
Still, my heart said “yes!” the moment I received the invitation to Gandhi 3.0, a retreat conceived of by a group of wonderful people including Nipun Mehta, founder of Service Space and fomenter of the gentle revolution of values called Gift Economy. The retreat was to take place at a beautiful retreat center near Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, and around the anniversary of his death. And after there was the promise of a pilgrimage. I emailed “yes!” to the invitation before my mind could come up with a list of good reasons why it was just too hard. Almost immediately there came this beguiling reply: “We’ll be here to welcome you home.”
This extraordinary welcome didn’t mean that I personally gave off some kind of a reincarnation vibration (although I admit I entertained this ego-licious notion for a second when it hit my in box). It turned out that Moved By Love, the extraordinary Indian group hosting the retreat (connected to the California-based Service Space, the way Aspen trees are out-croppings of the same interconnected root system) practiced welcoming and giving and creating a feeling of home as a way of service, a way serving God. And in their service, they convey the spirit of Gandhi, a spirit that is itself a distillation of deeply rooted traditional values that pervade India.
Even before the crowded Air India flight took off from JFK, a young Indian woman began to prepare me for what was to come. “Just so you know, people don’t mind touching like they do here,” she said. “They don’t have the same sense of personal space.” She meant they don’t mind crowding into the aisles, but she also foreshadowed something marvelous. Even before I landed in Ahmnebad, kindness kept appearing, a bottle of water, a mobile phone to call home, contact numbers just in case. At the retreat center, the welcome was so warm (including signs and a song!) that the organizers told me weeks later that were worried that they terrified me.
I went to India braced for darkness, but I wasn’t prepared for the light. It will take a few posts to convey my adventure in India. For now I will say that I travelled there like a child, ignorant, utterly dependent on others, so I got to take in the kinds of impressions children take in. At every turn I was met by kindness and generosity. I felt like I had all the wrong things, stupid purple sneakers because I was afraid of snakes, no towel, no cool Indian clothes (why does travel make us, or me, feel so vulnerable?)–and sandals appeared, a towel, a kurti. But it wasn’t the offering of things but the field of “maitri,” of loving friendliness, the feeling of being held and carried forward by friends with a noble, even sacred intention, that was so extraordinary.
After the warm welcome at what felt like a beautiful jungle compound, I was offered an Indian dinner and shown to a room that featured narrow little beds with hand-sewn coverings and a single blanket, slatted blinds without glass, a simple bathroom with a bucket and pitcher for a shower–somehow the austerity created a feeling of elegant simplicity, of living without wasting, mindful of the millions (billions?) without clean water. I went to sleep to sounds of a riotous Indian wedding somewhere far away, and awoke to the sound of chanted prayers and bells. I wish I could convey the warmth after cold, the smell of spice and wood-smoke in the air, the strange new bird cries, the light.
A gentle knock and smiling face, indicating breakfast and chai, and suddenly I realized how isolated I had been–ready for forays into the world, but equally ready to retreat into my enclosed little space. Suddenly, in surroundings where not much privacy is provided for, it became very clear that a choice exists, moment by moment. I could try to turn away from life, isolating at least mentally, or I could be open to receive. I would try to be open. I would see that receiving consciously is not unrelated to giving.
At breakfast, a man I would come to know by his equanimity and presence rather than through words said in Hindi (translated for me), “Only things that can open can blossom.”
To be continued…..