Picking up the thread from where I left off in Chapter-3 ….
We had a one-hour group discussion everyday from days 2 to 7. We were divided into groups on the second day of retreat. I was part of a group of eight girls. (The sex ratio in the camp was skewed towards girls, there were other completely female groups as well). One girl dropped out of the group after the first day of GD because according to her, she was there for the silence and she didn’t want to talk for even one hour a day. This girl was one of my roommates –Sussanne, who herself conducted silent retreats back in her motherland – the Netherlands. Silent retreats sure sounded like a very first-world thing (fancy thinking that when I was myself attending one). I was curious to know more about what she did but then, her antipathy to talking!
So we were seven girls in the discussion group for the rest of the days. We were an eclectic mix – me, a 50-year old politician’s wife from Mumbai- Varsha; a tall, blonde 22-year old Russian Katya who reminded me of Maria Sharapova; a 25-year old Palestinian-American Layla; a 20-year old German student Taliya ; another German – a call centre employee whose name I have forgotten and a 32-year old Taiwanese woman Jennifer. There was a wide variety in age, country, education, looks. Of course, it was true for every other group as well.
We were given topics for discussion every day which were based on the concepts discussed in class that day. They ranged from the nature of mind to nature of suffering to reincarnation and the concept of self. We had deep, enlightening discussions where everyone chimed in with their thoughts and personal experiences. Just to have examples drawn from such widely different backgrounds enriched the discussions. For instance while discussing the power of self- compassion, Jennifer talked about how her mother, to that day , thought that taking time out for herself was selfish. She said that back in Taiwan, it was expected from the lady of the house to think of her needs only after taking care of everyone else’s needs in the family. Jennifer also talked about how she had learnt the lesson from her mother’s experience and gave priority to her own well being. She had come on a trip to the Indian sub-continent all by herself because she felt she needed it. Varsha talked about how she ran behind her three kids all day and never had any time for herself. The caveat being her kids were not really kids but fully grown humans in their late-20s and early-30s! We realized this seemed typical of Asian cultures – the mothers and wives putting themselves last, because what was true in Taiwan was also true in India. These experiences were contrasted by the experiences of women from Western society where parents stop being so involved in their kids’ lives after they enter adulthood. Varsha talked about how her roommate who was a retired nurse from UK with three adult daughters found it weird that she was still so involved in her kids life and especially with how obsessed she was with getting her daughter married. I had to explain to the group that’s pretty normal – my mom’s the same and so are all the moms I know around me!
There were some gems of wisdom that came out of the group discussion that left an impact on me.
We were discussing about how to be compassionate towards judgemental people. Layla said something that has stayed with me. She said, “If you meet a judgemental person, imagine how judgemental that person must be to herself.” It just hit me. Wow! That was so true. How much shame or guilt such a person must be carrying for her own past mistakes and what all things she would be doing to hide that shame instead of dealing with it. My mind took me back to an overtly critical person I knew in my extended family. I could see beyond her disapproving words and found myself thinking, “So sad that she is trapped in a prison of her own making”. I also looked at myself and at how I had judged other people’s actions and what that says about me.
Another time, I was struggling with this feeling that meditation is for people with time on their hands. Or for bored housewives or rich people. After all, all of us in the group had the luxury of taking some time off to do this retreat. I thought how ridiculous it is to think of people in distress such as in a war-torn nation or extreme poverty doing meditation. Layla weighed in, “No, that’s not right. Buddhism has thrived in extreme distress. The Tibetans had to flee the Chinese occupation and live in penury but they never left their faith. The Dalai Lama has preached about peace his entire life even though he could easily have been a bitter old man. Meditation is for everyone.” That was profound and very true and cleared my misconception that I was learning something elitist.
We were a group of girls who were only given an hour to talk everyday so naturally, we veered off topic sometimes :
Once we digressed to what I would like to call the banana-gate. We were discussing concepts such as compassion and generosity when Jennifer started relating her experience – “In the morning during breakfast, I noticed that many people in the front of the line take two bananas while I don’t get any if I am near the end of the line. Shouldn’t such people think about others before hogging the bananas?” Jennifer was a quiet girl but a perceptive one. I hadn’t noticed this problem, since in the morning I could cut the line and go straight to the food (because dishwashing duty). So I always got a banana. Then others narrated their banana stories about how they had noticed some guys taking multiple bananas.
The next day Varsha saved up her banana for Jennifer. It was a sweet gesture. Jennifer was floored and mortified. Another round of pointing out people who took multiple bananas followed. Clearly this topic had touched a chord in the group..
The day after that, I decided to take action. In our Buddhist philosophy class, we were given time to ask any doubts after the teaching. We could send in written questions anonymously or ask them directly. I wrote an anonymous question conveying the banana grievance cleverly interwoven with Buddhist concepts. So I wrote something on the lines of, “Should we forgive and practise generosity on people who take extra bananas without thinking about others or should we inform them about their actions which are leading them to do bad karma?” The class gave a collective guffaw. My discussion group figured out I must be behind this. The mood of the class shifted – validation for some who had also faced the same situation and an accusation for some others who had perpetrated the situation. The teacher was amused and gave a short chuckle before saying, “You can practise generosity. That will be good for you. Also those who take multiple bananas are accruing bad karma only if they are aware that there are others who are going without one because of their actions. Intention matters”. Then she mused about bananas,“Hmm, the kitchen doesn’t get unlimited bananas, that is there. Some people can need more bananas. Everyone has a different requirement.” Then one hand went up. The guy narrated his banana story, “Initially I was one of the people who took multiple bananas. Then one day I got late for breakfast and there were no bananas left. That’s when I realized that bananas are not an unlimited resource. I went out and bought a dozen bananas and kept them at the breakfast table.” The teacher laughed, “Well, that is good of you. But you are not supposed to leave the retreat premises for these 10 days. Hopefully everyone is aware of the banana situation now and can give thought to their actions.”
After the teachings, we had GD post lunch. My group laughed at how far the bananagate had travelled. One went, “That hippie guy always takes 2-3 bananas. (there was a self-described hippie in our class.) He looked like the color drained from his face”. I turned to Jennifer, “You will always have a banana from now on”.
When we went back for evening teachings, the same hippie guy we were talking about went to the teacher and muttered something in her ear before the class began. The teacher announced, “So someone went to the kitchen and inquired if bananas were limited. Turns out the kitchen has surplus bananas and they were unaware that some people went without bananas. So you people can take as many bananas as you want and ask the kitchen to keep more when they finish. But don’t be greedy!”
So the hippie guy did something about the finger indirectly raised in his direction and that’s how the banana-gate came to be resolved. Bananas for everyone!
The kundalini conundrum
Layla casually said in the group one day that she practises raising her kundalini. She also said she had been in touch with a professor back home in America who guided her through the scientific logic behind it. I was dumbfounded. What the hell is a kundalini and how do you raise it? And why is an American woman doing things with the kundalini while I don’t even know what it was. I wondered aloud in the group about the kundalini. Varsha helpfully explained,” A kundli is what has the information about the stars of a person…” I looked at her incredulously and told her that like every Indian I knew what a kundli was but what was a kundalini? She was as clueless as I was and Layla had to explain it. Varsha and I were both wide-eyed about the knowledge that an American had about yoga. I wondered why no one around me was raising her kundalini? Heck, I even doubted if anyone around me knew what it was. Was there even any teacher I could find who could guide me through it in Ludhiana? For all I knew, yoga in Ludhiana meant Pranayama and the easiest asanas you could think of. After coming back, I attended a couple of yoga sessions in Ludhiana. The teacher taught yoga as a remedy for various diseases. “This asana helps with your thyroid” etc etc . It was attended by people looking for some relief from one health issue or the other. No one in my class looked like they would be interested in raising their kundalinis unless it was a remedy for some disease. Well, atleast the Americans are taking care of their kundalinis. Good for them!
The search for the boyfriend
Another topic that had our attention was Layla’s boyfriend. This happened while discussing the bananagate. Layla went, “My boyfriend also eats a lot so I understand that some people just need more food. He is lanky but that’s his thing.” We were all intrigued, “Who is this guy?” If a girl in our group had a boyfriend at the retreat, we should be knowing about it. Bananagate was temporarily forgotten. We wanted to know more about this guy. So she described him – he is a tall, lanky guy with a goatee. We were bursting with curiosity about his identity. I went back to the evening sessions looking for tall, lanky guys with a goatee. Turns out there were more than one. Infact, I spotted four and puzzled over which one it was. At dinner time, I tried to spot Layla and if there was any tall, lanky guy around her. There were two lanky guys around her on this occasion. I was completely at sea about which one it could be. Layla and her boyfriend were both very dedicated to the course so they never really hung out together and focused on their own spiritual journeys. This made spotting the boyfriend difficult. Varsha being the most observant one was the first among us to guess correctly. Every GD after that till we had all figured out who he was, we used to spend some time putting forward the options. Observing over a couple of days and taking cues from Varsha, I got to know who he was.
Why did it take so long to figure out who this guy was? Because Layla had told us her boyfriend was British. She was very fair so I was looking at the fairer of tall, lanky guy options. And it turned out to be the guy who dressed like a hippie but looked like an Indian yogi complete with dark, dishevelled hair and a rugged tan!
On a side note, I had noticed during the philosophy class that Layla (and her boyfriend too) had her eyes closed all through the teachings. As I had got to know in GD, Layla was much more advanced than me when it came to yoga and meditation so I used to wonder, “Is she absorbing the teachings better this way?” I used to look at my notes and ask myself if I should go the Layla route and close my eyes instead of making notes. The small voice inside my head would immediately go, “No! You won’t remember a thing after all is said and done, if you don’t write it down. Aukat me reh!”
Layla asked me my age the last day of GD . When I told her, she was taken by surprise. “I thought you must be 22-23 . You do such diligent note taking and remember everything from class – I thought you must be fresh out of college or something”. Everyone chortled at how true that was. I could see my note-taking had become legendary in the discussion group. If anyone didn’t remember something from the class during GD, they used to look towards me, sure that I must have written it down!
TO BE CONTD… Chapter-5