After the Gandhi 3.0 retreat ended, a small group of us visited an Indian village where people live as most people have always lived, cooking over fires, working very hard for food and water, dependent on the help of oxen and camels other animals, dependent on the help of God and each other. My friends and I saw so much, rode on an ox cart, had tea with a saintly man. But after many hours I began to feel weak from the heat and hunger and probably from the sheer exposure to this new ancient world. Just then, a woman sitting on the ground making her daily bread over a small fire waved us over, inviting us to sit down and share this bread.
The next day, in the midst of an urban slum, something similar happened. Starting at Gandhi’s famous ashram in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, the same small group of us visited a school and a pre-school and a center for women–all efforts begun without money or plan, begun with a simple impulse to sit down and listen and witness, to be the change, as Gandhi said. Hours passed and again I grew hungry and thirsty (who travels to India and forgets to bring a water bottle?). Our guide decided to take a short cut back to the Gandhi ashram where we were having lunch. The short way turned out to cross a vast dump where many people live in tents and flimsy shanties. While my fellow travelers greeted smiling people and hugged children, a great stillness descended over me. I began to feel what it might be like here during monsoons, or at night without electric lights, or day after day. How could hope or spirit ignite? Once again, I felt weak and looked up to see another woman gesturing, inviting us to have tea.
I was hungry and thirsty and you offered me food and drink. I thought these words this morning, in the pre-dawn of consciousness when deeper feelings and knowings draw close to the surface. It was as if an ancient sacred proverb swam up from unknown depths, as if a great question of life was being answered. As if it was the question about the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it– does it make a sound? In light of all the suffering and darkness and intricately complex challenges in India and the whole world, do small acts of kindness, small moments of opening to give and receive really make a sound?
Yes. In bed under many blankets in wintery New York, those scenes in India sounded in the depths of me like a big bell. It was as if a sacred truth–a sacred relationship or covenant–was embodied for me. Give us this day our daily bread…How had it not dawned on me that there is something divine about giving bread? I thought of the man who would be the Buddha, the Awakened One, being offered food when he was starving and broken. How had I not realized that receiving this gift was the moment he began to realize the great truth of our interconnection.
In the days to come, I travelled more, flying to the heart of India, to stay briefly at the Vinoba Ashram and Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram. I attended events in glittering Mumbai (accurately described to me as New York on steroids). I travelled more or less as a child would, clueless about where I was going, surrendering to the large and small kindnesses that were constantly offered.
While at the Vinoba Ashram, I clumsily helped chop vegetables (fumbling around in pre-dawn darkness without glasses or coffee) and harvest turmeric (I was kindly handed big roots to break apart, easy stuff). I learned that I am not much of a cook or a farmer or a sweeper, but I learned that proficiency doesn’t really matter. What matters is participating in an sacred dance of giving and receiving. What matters, in the words of my host Jayesh-bhai, quoting his father Ishwar Patel, is being open to “Create heaven wherever you are.” In a remote village, in a slum, in the moment.
Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Once long ago, I was on the edge of death. In the midst of it, I saw that behind the appearances of things there is a great white light of love and compassion. I saw that we are all held and carried by this great holy force. But it didn’t dawn on me that this cosmic force, this God force, comes to us in the smallest moments and actions, and that these actions affirm our interconnection. And I glimpsed that while our problems are vast and complex, this force is very powerful.
As I left to come home to New York, Jayesh-bhai presented me with a beautiful scarf made from organic cotton and woven by women from the slum. He said, “Tell them we are meant to live in a shared world.”
On the way to the airport, my friend Guri wondered if my trip to India would seem like a dream once I was home in New York. This proved to be true, but not in the sense of being insubstantial. Just the opposite. I woke up this morning feeling stronger, healed in some deep way by what I experienced. I once read that the Old English root of the word “heal” means to be brought to wholeness. In his life and work, Gandhi showed us what it can look like to live in relation to a greater whole, in a shared world. In India, I realized he didn’t invent this, he received it. And he knew it came from a greater Truth that always prevail in the end.