A Lesson In Letting Go From My Mother

As a teen, there were many days where I hovered across the kitchen counter, watching my mom make fresh roti (Indian bread), ready to grab one as soon as it fluffed on the open flame. Of course, she would snatch it right back to spread a little butter on top before giving it back. Like a half-starved child, I would plunge right into the soft bread like no one had fed me for days. There's nothing like your mom’s cooking. And my favorite was the round hot rotis with sabji (curried veggies), and thick Punjabi dal (lentils).

Traditional chakla to roll rotis on
Within minutes of me stepping in the door, there would be the inevitable question of “roti banawa?” Should I make roti? The sabji and the dal were ever-ready in our house but the rotis were usually made fresh each meal. Like all Indian moms of that generation, she had her process. She would carefully break a small part of the kneaded dough, roll it into a small round ball between her palms, spread it into a disk-shape with her hands; Then using a wooden rolling pin, methodically roll it into a perfect circle on a chakla (usually wooden but in her case, a round carved white marble). She would then carefully place it onto the round griddle on the stove, followed by the open flame to fluff it. With the next one already rolled out, this was the time for catching up about the day. The one thing that was unique about her process was that she never rushed -- she made them slowly, gently caring for each one as if everything in life rested on that one roti. Mom would sometimes even rest her left hand on her hip like she had all the time in the world, and hold a rolled roti in the other -- and chat with me while at the same time keeping an eye on the roti on the stove.
My Brother, Hubster, Mom, and Sister (circa 2004)

About seven-eight years ago, we were hosting a get-together at my parents home, and like most Punjabis (actually I think all :), she has a second stove set-up in the garage. I wish I'd kept to myself that day but I was trying to be of some help to her. We were running a bit behind schedule and she was just about finished with everything else, so now we just needed to make the rotis before the guests started arriving. I tried to work quickly, knowing that I was probably rushing her. As I was hurriedly moving everything closer to the table next to the stove, something happened that I wish I had the power to undo. The marble chakla that I've always seen her use -- slipped out of my hand and fell hard on the concrete garage floor. It made a loud sound as soon as it hit the surface, and broke into several pieces.

It was obvious right away that there was no way of salvaging it. I was shocked at my absent-mindedness and felt horrible as my mom looked over her shoulder to see what had happened. All I could muster was, “Oh mom I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened.” She was quiet for a second and then just said “koi ghal nahi,” her version of “it’s okay.” She then walked over quietly, picked up the broken pieces and put them in the trash can in the garage. Quickly grabbing a smooth cutting board, she started rolling the rotis.
We continued with the rest of the evening and she didn’t say anything else about the matter.

Mom always looks innocent and
michievious at the same time
A few days later, as we sat down for tea, I still felt bad and wondered if I could find a replacement. I brought it up again but she said don’t worry about it, what’s done is done. When asked how long she had it, she casually mentioned that she had it for a while. Her grandmother had taught her how to make rotis on it. I felt so bad and I’ll never forget the look in her eyes when she gently confided: “It belonged to my mother.” Her mother! Who she rarely talks about because she doesn’t have any memories of her. Her mother who had passed away when mom was an infant, and she was raised by her grandmother and stepmom.

My older sister later told me that the marble chakla was given to her mother by her parents when she got married, and it was the last thing that my mom had left that belonged to her mom (and her entire lineage). She brought it with her from India to the US when our family migrated here. 

As my mom and I sipped tea that day, she shared none of this. Focused on making me feel better, with the wave of her hand, she just said, jaan de” (let it go), as she poured me more tea and asked about my day. Even now when I think about this, tears well up. If I was in her place, there’s no way I would’ve not said anything. There would have at least been a lecture or two about being more mindful, there would've been anger, or guilt for a little while about something so precious now gone forever.

As I recall this now, I feel like her reaction to this so aptly sums up who she is. Someone who goes through the ups and downs in life with resilience, selflessness, always focusing on what’s good, and what’s happening right instead of what went wrong. Someone who clearly knows that what is done cannot be undone, but instead of looking at the broken pieces of the past, you put them in their place, and just keep on moving forward with all the grace that you can muster.


To Receive the Truth, Be Empty

In the “Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master,” the author, Sri M, shares an encounter he witnessed between his spiritual teacher and an old man. There lived a very holy man in the holy city of Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Rumors had it that the holy man had left his position as the head Abbot of a very famous monastery to seek a higher “Truth”. As a genuine seeker, he spent his entire life studying sacred texts, and yet he had not found what he was searching for. Wary of all the fake gurus in the Himalayas, he did not want to seek anyone’s help. Instead, he spent his days by the river Ganges in meditation and nights sleeping in the courtyard of a temple nearby. He ate only when someone brought him food, and had no possessions except for one blanket that he used to meditate on, and as a cover from the cold at night. 

When Sri M came across him, he insisted that the Holy man should meet his teacher, Babaji -- who would certainly be able to help him. When they finally met, Babaji recognized the sincerity of the Holy man. He told him that it is great that he left his “crown” at the monastery but he is far away from the Truth that he seeks because he still carries the burden of knowledge. That burden acts as a barrier to understanding the reality. You have to be empty to receive the Truth.

He went on to share, “Now, Truth cannot be something in the past. It is the eternal present, and therefore, cannot be stored in the memory, which is a thing of the past, the dead past. Truth, on the other hand, is in the present the now, eternally flowing, pulsating with life, and therefore, cannot be touched by knowledge.” The Holy man mentioned that he always wondered about a phrase in the Upanishads (central book of philosophy for Hinduism) -- “He who worships knowledge enters into greater darkness.” The conventional explanation given to him was that it meant “non-essential” knowledge, which never fully made sense to him. He also confessed that he only felt great stillness once or twice in his life, “while doing nothing in particular, just watching the river or looking up at the clear sky.” 

This story made me wonder about the role that knowledge and intellect play on our spiritual path. In our modern world, we have unlimited amount of access to information and we can easily fill our minds with knowledge. How can we truly think about creating room for that “emptiness” that Babaji talks about while living in the most information overloaded era the world has yet seen? 

Perhaps even more dangerous than knowledge is partial knowledge, a fragmentary understanding of something. Confidently assuming that by understanding a small part, we now have an understanding of the whole. Knowledge can't be substituted for the lived wisdom that comes from our own experience. It can only inform us, and then we have to allow it to simmer in our own being, so it becomes actual wisdom that guides us. Confucious tells us that, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." That's a very humbling thought and I think he makes a very important point here. When we realize that we don't know what we don't know, it puts us in the student chair. And that is where we are continually open to learning and being a disciple of our experiences. 

What happened to our Holy man that started this conversation? After Babaji and Sri M. spoke with him, they left to visit another town. As they were traveling, they learned that four days after they talked, the seventy-year-old holy man happen to pass away.

The Holy man was sitting on his favorite rock, simply watching the river, and smiling in ecstasy when his soul left his body. He had finally found what he was searching for his entire life.


A Case for Solitary Spaces

We are born into this world alone. Surely there are others around to help midwife us from the solitary wombs of our mothers, where we are closely held for nearly a year. But no one can entirely relate to what we’re experiencing at that moment and the days ahead. It is mostly a solo journey of exploration and finding our place in the world around us.

From time to time I think we are called to return to that solitary space like the womb, to allow ourselves to simply be. Perhaps to take a close look at who we have become, without the voices of others encouraging or judging us. To reflect deeply on what’s guiding our actions and to remember (from the Latin "re-memorari," which literally means to be “mind-ful of”) our original intention. To empty ourselves of all that is not true. To nudge ourselves gently back onto the path, where we think we should be.

The word solitude might conjure up images of loneliness for many, but for introverts, it is what breathes life into us. It is not a privilege to retreat from time to time but an essential need.

My opportunity for solitude came earlier this month. A friend of mine was traveling to India, so I decided to take advantage of her studio cottage that lay empty for another week. It wasn’t the most ideal of times in terms of work, but I managed to press the brakes for a couple of days, and tried to wrap-up all urgent work, unsure of when I would get this chance again. Packed a few pairs of clothes, some groceries, and got dropped off at her place.

It didn’t take very long to settle into her small studio with just the basics. The wet and chilly winter weather made it feel like the perfect time to be indoors. I’m accustomed to silent 10-day meditation retreats with a rigorous schedule (which I wouldn’t trade for anything), but I wanted this one to be different -- to be completely agendaless. Something I haven’t done before. To allow space for things to happen organically. The only guideline was to be alone. Turn off all the distracting gadgets. Practice silence (inner and outer).

There’s nothing that allows you to see the nature of your own mind, like simply sitting down quietly. Meditation ended up becoming an integral part of it. I've been practicing vipassana for some years now, so that naturally became an anchor for the days. Mindful living, cooking, eating, and mindful cleaning became the norm. I noticed the places in my body where I was holding tension, even while doing the simplest of tasks, like washing an oatmeal encrusted pot or making tea. I found myself rushing to clean up after a meal, although there was no reason to hurry. Habits can run quite deep.

On the second night as I lay down to sleep, the body naturally fell into meditation. Surprisingly, I felt a heavy feeling right in the middle of my chest. Like a small disc lodged itself right in the center of it, blocking my energies. A stark reminder that the body is registering everything, even when our response on the surface is fine. The next day, meditation took on a more intense form.

The perspective shifts so quickly, when you're in solitude. Just a day ago, it was hard to justify to myself taking a couple of days off, the events of the world seemed so paramount. And now this seemed to be the most important thing that I could be doing with my time. Although my time was coming to an end, I was simply just not ready to leave yet, so texted N to see if he would be okay if I spent another four days away, and could he cancel all my appointments and take care the urgent responsibilities. He enthusiastically wrote back and encouraged me to continue the retreat, excited that I was taking the time off.

Over the next few days, there was a shedding of many layers. The thoughts that were offensively loud when I arrived were simply just no longer relevant. The small petty questions and worries turned into big ultimate questions. Who am I -- without my current identity, my relationships, my fears, my joys? The mental filters through which I’ve now become accustomed to seeing the world started to fall away, ever so gradually. The ego has such a funny way of creating its own world and its own illusions, then fully abiding in them. The only way to counteract it is, to at least become aware that we’re largely products of our own thoughts. And continue to observe the mind like a jury watching a witness on a trial, attentive but detached from the situation. With a deep understanding that in our own narratives, we’re usually the prosecutor and the judge, so the defense has zero chance.

Solitude has a way of cleansing us of the inessential in our lives. The debris of the actions of others around us gets swept away. We are safely returned to our own authentic imperfect selves, knowing that we can truly only just work on ourselves. (It is a stupendous enough of a task for a lifetime, that there’s no room to criticize the rest of the world.) The loud voices are replaced with a quiet contentment. The weakest parts find themselves strengthened. And I find myself once again ready to take on the world. Even some of the dreams while sleeping point to the larger purpose, the higher-self working its way through I am sure.

When the mind starts to take a backseat, our whole being seems to expand far beyond our perceived limitations. We are capable of a great amount of expansion and yet, without deep reflection, our egos can just as easily contract into themselves. This is perhaps why reflective time alone becomes so significant. To not consider life worthy of quiet deliberation would mean that we may be voluntarily handing it over to the inevitable contraction.

In some ways, it truly was returning to the womb for me, and allowing it to nurture me back to my original self. Martin Buber, a Jewish Israeli scholar said it best when he said, “solitude is the place of purification.”


A Time for Reflection and Renewal

The hands of time keep ticking forward without the slightest bit of assistance from us. Still we can’t help but use the passing of days and years as markers, the important moments, and milestones in our lives. Starting with the day that we arrived in this world, to when we started school to the multiple graduations. The day we got our driver’s license and wreaked havoc on unassuming drivers, or said “I do” to someone for the rest of our life. To the usual birthdays and anniversaries. Then there are the special occasions, the holidays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve -- when the whole world is aware of the specialness of the day.

I once tried to figure out how old my grandfather was, he told me he was born during the “harvest season”. Very quickly realizing that I was not going to get an exact day/month/year, I inquired, “but which year?” He excitedly tried to explain that he was born before his sister but after his brother and calculated roughly how far apart they were in age. But still no exact year and he sort of waved it off with his hand. It just didn’t seem important during the time that he was born. There were no birthday parties, no presents, no college admission, no annual health check-ups. All the kids worked on the acres of land owned by the family, grew their own food, made their own clothes, built the family home, slept under the stars, woke up to the sound of the rooster and the first rays of the sun. It was a different time. And a different place. As long as he lived, I don’t believe he ever celebrated his birthday. Life just went on -- without markers. I'm guessing he was somewhere between 78-90. :-)

Though I appreciate the celebratory nature of the holidays, I find something deeply spiritual in days being dictated by seasons instead of mass consumerism. I think many people put too much pressure on holidays and that being the time of the year to spend with family and friends (as oppose to the entire rest of the year). It’s perhaps not surprising to know that there’s a forty-percent increase in suicide attempts immediately after Christmas. It can be easy to lose sight of what is actually being celebrated (in a historical sense).

Winter season brings so many gifts, it can be a beautiful time for growth and renewal. As the nights grow longer, and days shorter, it feels natural to ease into rest and reflection. The past few months I’ve found myself drawn to a ritual that my grandfather would do with my cousins and I when he visited. Every day, right after sunset, as soon as it turned dark -- we would gather together in a room and light a candle and offer a small prayer. It was a marker between the running-around of the day and resting into the coming stillness of the night. We never had to remember to do it. The sun setting would serve as the reminder and send us running home from wherever we were playing. Although I have to admit that at the time we were mostly motivated by the prasad (a sweet sugar-candy and nuts) we would receive at the end of the prayer. 

Once we’d washed up and gathered in one room, I recall being amazed that the small flickering flame would light up all the little faces. It is a beautifully symbolic act that reminds me that when it becomes dark outside, it’s important to keep a candle burning inside.


The Rain Gods

Monsoon. Vipassana Center. Igatpuri, Maharashtra, India (June 2005)

It looks like the Monsoon season has arrived in India with a bang. Seeing Facebook posts filled with the rains, I remembered the first time I had a chance to experience it as an adult. Almost exactly ten years ago, right after a walking pilgrimage. Nipun and I were staying at the Vipassana Center in Igatpuri when it happened. I remember how hot and dry it got right before it, and how people eagerly awaited this season, especially the farmers because the heat was unbearable and the land had completely dried up. Below is a poem that came up for me at the time.

The Rain Gods

Unbearably loud --- not a single leaf stands still,

each one joins the chorus 
as the wind hurriedly rushes through.

The dark clouds hover over
as the drumming starts in a distance.
People gather together, 
to welcome the first rain.
The lightning strikes
as if all the cosmos are assembling for a grand finale.

I look up at the clouds with folded hands
as the zealous wind envelopes my whole body.
And offer a silent prayer to the Rain Gods.

Thinking of the farmers in far away hilly lands,
who only have work when it rains,
thinking of their little children with empty stomachs,
thinking of the sad grandfather whose cows ran away,
because there wasn’t anything left for them to eat.

The drumming gets louder as everyone impatiently awaits,
the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rain.
I stretch out my hand and feel the first few drops,
anxiously waiting for the showers after such a thunderous show.

But to my dismay everything comes -- to a standstill.
The clouds disseminate as quickly as they had gathered.
The temperamental wind decides to go elsewhere for the day.

Only the faithful drumming in the distance remains.
And the silent prayers,
that have yet to be answered.

But it doesn’t rain tonight,
Or the next day, or the next one after that.
Instead, the sun shines brighter than ever,
As if to take back its crown.

Until five days later,
As I sit quietly in meditation,
I hear a few drops hit the tin roof above,
and then a few more, and then a couple more,
until they all come marching down.

My heart fills with joy.
I could feel the earth being watered,
little seeds will soon start to sprout.
And while I couldn’t hear the drums of the farmers,
I could feel their heartbeats dancing with joy.
The Rain Gods have arrived.

As I sat there smiling in silence,
I knew at least one old grandfather
will be sitting on his porch
wearing the same smile,
thankful that his cows will have to
run away no more,
for there will be plenty for them to eat.


Being Human

Someone broke into our car. They broke a rear window and a small part of my heart. Seeing your private stuff lying all over the parking lot makes you want to yell at someone, or hide and be cautious of every person you come across in the building.

All they took was some change, garage remote, few minor things, and a pair of inexpensive sunglasses that I had just bought. Could it have been worth it for them? Instead of attending a lunch for two friends, who just moved to the area, you spend the afternoon cleaning up shards of glass from the car. Slowly separating what you want to keep from what to toss into the trash bin. You call the auto shops to find out how much the damage would cost, and how quickly they can take a look. When the best price is an hour away and first available appointment a couple of days away, you tell yourselves that it will be fine. The car with the broken window will be safe in your unsafe parking lot. What else is there to take? You empty it of all your scattered belongings and leave it unlocked, so anyone who wants to get in doesn't need to struggle.

Tunnel on the Camino de Santiago, Spain (2010)
As you are cleaning, you can't help wonder what type of a person would do this? Aside from being thoughtless and having no concern for other people’s properties, they would have to be desperate, or possibly homeless. Since there was nothing that was visible in the car, they really took a chance in breaking the window to see what they could find. They also must’ve been really scared because they did it in a hurry, not even bothering to close the doors afterward. As you imagine their life, in all your fury, you try not to curse them in your mind because they probably have it bad enough as it is. You wish you could sit them down and tell them not do this because these things have a way of getting back at us karmically. And if they’re already having issues, they can’t afford any more karmic debt. You hope they come out of their current situation, and almost wish they had stolen some of the good CD’s, maybe the chants -- because they need it more than you do.

You sweep the last pile of glass into a dustpan and pick up a "smile card" that had fallen on the floor from your car. People use these to do random acts of kindness and leave the card behind to ask the recipient to pay-it-forward to others. You stop all your activity because it dawns on you that no one must have ever done a random act of kindness for this person. This person probably does not know how it feels to truly receive something. If they did, they would know the joy that an unexpected kindness brings to the heart. They would also know that it would not feel good to receive an unwarranted unkind act like this. You feel grateful for everyone in your life, and for constantly being wrapped in their love. You wonder how you and your society have contributed to this person who feels the need to break a car window to get some change. You forgive them -- wholeheartedly. You wonder how you can contribute to a world where no one is lacking for what they really need.

Although your heart forgives this person, your mind is cautious and it doesn’t want to be caught off-guard again. As you enter your apartment, you make sure that the door is locked in case they took your address. You get up at night and check it once again. In your sleepiness, you decide that you will get a bolt on your door, so no one can break-in. The next day, you feel dreadful that you had this thought. You will not allow your heart to close-up and become small by something so tiny, and stupid as this. You remind yourself that this is a part of living in downtown, and this is not personal. You walk downstairs to your completely empty car, with a broken window to take it to the shop.

Out of habit, you reach for the small compartment above your head for the sunglasses. To your surprise -- they are there! You do a double-take and feel them a couple of times. How could this be? You try to remember if you could be mistaken. This is just not possible because you had checked three times as you cleaned your car since they were just bought the day before. It was completely empty. And you were so disappointed that they were already gone. Maybe they accidently took some of the smile cards and realized that there was an actual person who might miss those glasses, since that was the only personal item taken. You are relieved to know that they have a conscience. It makes you hopeful for their future. 

You feel that a hand has been extended, and an apology has been made. And you wish you could reach out and give them a hug, for a very long time, and let them know that everything will be all right. Maybe, like all of us, they're just trying, and being human the best that they can.


The Sacredness of Values

Kecak dance performance (also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant)

Uluwatu is an ancient Hindu temple situated on the top of a steep cliff, off the coast of Bali. It’s believed that in the 11th century, a sage from the East who built it attained enlightenment here. The temple is now famous for the Kecak Dance that is performed every evening at sunset.

We were staying about an hour away, but everyone we met insisted that we should make the drive out to see this unforgettable dance. As we arrived, hundreds of others had already descended upon this place. We had a little bit of time to walk around the huge temple sprawled across the beautiful cliff. 70 meters above the Indian Ocean, the view of the sea and the waves hitting the rocks was simply breathtaking and calming.

The cliff at Uluwatu Temple where the Kecak dance is performed
Gradually, we made our way up a dirt path, to the highest point of the cliff, facing the sunset. Here, in an open amphitheater, close to a thousand people had already gathered. In the middle of the circle, was a five-foot platform structure holding a large flame. The Priest, in all white clothing, circled the sacred fire while he prayed. 

As latecomers found seats, the energy with the sun setting behind the stage became quiet and still. Close to a hundred men dressed only in black and white plaid cloth around their waists, came onto the stage and gathered into a circle. As they arrived and for the next ninety minutes, the group chanted, “chak-achak-achak.” Their vocals served as the chorus to the performance, without any other musical instruments. Actors adorned in elaborate costumes, took turns coming onto the stage and performed a small part of Ramayana from the Hindu mythology. In this part, Ravana abducts Sita, and Hanuman, the monkey God, who is a renowned devotee of her husband Ram, sets out to bring her back against all odds. In my limited knowledge of Hinduism, I understand it to be a battle of good versus evil. It was quite an intensely emotional performance. The chorus evoked an energy that was both calming and vivacious. The men’s voices in unison pulled you into the present moment and held the attention fiercely still. It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen in-person.

Here's a short clip from the film Baraka, although it can't replace the actual feeling of being there:
After getting back home from Bali it was still on my mind, and I wanted to learn more about its origins. Apparently the dance is based on Sanghyang, a sacred ritual where during the performance, spiritual entities will enter and possess the bodies of the dancers and bring them into a trance-like state. However, in the 1930's, a German painter, Walter spies became interested in this sacred dance that was done in the villages, and worked with a Balinese dancer to create something, “that was both authentic to Balinese traditions but also palatable to Western tourist’s narrow tastes at the time.” After touring internationally with the dance troupe, it became the most popular Balinese dance, that the country is known for.
The Kecak dance was never combined with Ramayana in the villages. It was meant to be a sacred ritual that serves as a way to communicate with God. The part that was especially hard for me was that this was created by a non-native, basically for the purposes of commoditization. Perhaps this would've happened on its own over time, given that Bali is the only place in Indonesia that's eighty-percent Hindu. And there is still beauty to the acapella singing, combined with this particular physical movement that seems to have an interesting gateway to subtle realms. I suppose it is inevitable that time constantly changes things, and what is passed down to us, has been altered at the hands of everyone who has touched it along the way. Theoretically, this is no different than our perceptions about every single religion in the world.
For me, this brings up a question of values. Things are constantly changing, but values guide that transition? If it's about selling the show, it's no longer about inner transformation or connection. How do we maintain the integrity of what we do, and preserve our initial intentions, that often come from a space of deep clarity? These start to change, as more and more people get involved, and as we ourselves change. With ServiceSpace, I’ve always felt that our three key principles have shielded us from deviating too far from our initial motivation to serve. And even if we start to go slightly off, there is enough strength at the core to jolt us back, and course-correct immediately. 

How do we maintain the values? I think the answer is the same whether it's at an organizational level or at a personal level. We have to live those values deeply, in our day-to-day lives without compromise if we want them to be present at least for tomorrow. As a well-known Buddhist teacher, Master Hsuan Hua used to say, "Off by an inch in the beginning, off by ten thousand miles at the end." In that sense, I guess that we are always at the beginning.