Of Ashrams, Mountains, and Seemingly Ordinary People

It seems that all the sacred places left in the world can only be reached on foot; such is the case with this one. Coming together from different parts of the world for a few days, the six of us walk silently, one after another. Two-kilometer trek up the rocky trail of the Arunachala mountain feels harder than it should. I walk behind Jayeshbhai on the clay-colored rocks, a close friend and a mentor. Silence starts to wash over me, preparing the mind to step into something sacred.

Following numerous bends of the trail the view opens up to display the whole city of Trivunamalai, with four temples symmetrically built in the middle of the town. Jayeshbhai and I pause to take in the grand view. As we try to catch our breath on this quiet January afternoon, we hear someone coming from the opposite side. An older grey-haired American woman appears walking very slowly down the jagged rocks with the help of a younger white woman on her right, and a local man on the left. Each step seems to bring her body a lot of agony as her feet shake to find the ground beneath them. But there is a vast smile on her face, which is half-covered with the oversized black glasses.

Ramana Maharishi (an Indian saint)
We both stop in admiration of the spirit of this lady, who has obviously made it to the cave and coming back. Jayeshbhai spontaneously touches her feet and instructs me to also “get her blessings.” As per the Indian custom, I follow suit. The younger woman tells her to touch our heads, and guides her hands. Her grin widens and I feel the touch of her hands in my hair. We chat for a bit and ask if there is anything we can do to help. All three assure us that they are fine and will slowly reach the bottom of the path. Renewed with energy, we slowly move forward in awe of such a dedicated western disciple of Ramana Maharishi.

On finally reaching the cave, a sense of stillness comes over me as I enter. Sitting among dozen others cross-legged on the floor, the eyes adjust to the dark. Lit by a single candle I can make out the small inner room with a shiva lingam in the center. Ramana Maharishi's teaching can be summed-up in three words, he asked his disciples to focus on the inquiry, “Who am I?” As I meditate, the mind comes to a complete stop, the thoughts seem few and far between. Probably a half hour passes before I open my eyes, feeling guilty for taking my time. The mind nudges me to go outside, so others can come and meditate.

Path up the Arunachal mountain where Ramana Maharishi lived
The walk down is filled with peace and awe, as the sun starts to set across the mountain. As we get near the bottom, I’m touched to see the older American lady again making her way down. I now learn that her name is Renee, who is now resting on a rock with Rajesh – still smiling as wide as ever. Jayeshbhai and I fill in Anarben on our meeting walking up the mountain. We sit down beside her bombarding her with questions. After learning that she has walked this path eight times during this trip, and is eighty-three years old, we find out that she has been a devotee of Ramana Maharishi for over thirty years. All because of a dream she once had. She has never met him even once. Such is her devotion.

Back in California, as I think of Renee and the tranquility so visible on her face, one word keeps coming to my mind – reverence. Reverence for trusting the mysteries of life. Reverence for following a deep inner calling. Reverence for sacred mountains, and seemingly ordinary people that remind me to keep looking deeper. 


The Secret of Happiness

A beautiful story that I love from “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho:

A merchant sent his son to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men. The young man wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain. There lived the sage that the young man was looking for.

However, instead of finding a holy man, our hero entered a room and saw a great deal of activity; merchants coming and going, people chatting in the corners, a small orchestra playing sweet melodies, and there was a table laden with the most delectable dishes of that part of the world.
The wise man talked to everybody, and the young man had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience.
With considerable patience, the Sage listened attentively to the reason for the boy’s visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness.
He suggested that the young man take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours’ time. “However, I want to ask you a favor,” he added, handling the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. “While you walk, carry this spoon and don’t let the oil spill.”
The young man began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.
“So,” asked the sage, “did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?” Embarrassed, the young man confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
“So, go back and see the wonders of my world,” said the wise man. “You can’t trust a man if you don’t know his house." Now more at ease, the young man took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche. Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.
“But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?” asked the sage.
Looking down at the spoon, the young man realized that he had spilled the oil.
“Well, that is the only advice I have to give you,” said the sage of sages. “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon."


Daffodils in Our Shoes

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." - Anais Nin

Woke up to find that the bright buds had bloomed speedily overnight. Bringing with them a splash of sunshine into the family room on an otherwise foggy morning. Thank you to the anonymous kindness bandits that left daffodils in all of our shoes during meditation last night. You know who you are. :-)

May you continue to blossom and bring sunshine in people’s hearts wherever you go. 


Suitcase Diaries

Can six months of one’s life be sloppily packed into a suitcase, and carried across the Atlantic Ocean to re-start yet again?

Photo by Meet Bhatt
The contents, in question, of a silver-gray bag, overflow to the top, the tight zipper working hard to keep it all in. Once opened at its California destination, the bright oranges, pinks, and purples embroidered on silk and cotton make much less sense than at the time of acquisition. The hand-woven scarfs and block printed tops tell a story of a life lived at a gentler pace. Hung next to the simple machine-made blue jeans, solid tees, and a white summer skirt, they scream indulgence, or a daily celebration if you’re in India. Gifts tucked into the corners of the bag last-minute from friends bring a wide smile to the heart: A purse, a handmade paper diary, incense cones, organic teas, a red and black bhandani sari, a white glimmering statue of Radha and Krishna, where he serenely plays his flute. They speak of generosity, thoughtfulness, and bonds built that will outlast the six months it took to develop them; and of reverence for the Gods and prayer, and of small things that take time to create or brew, like chai or great friendships.

Like a traveler on a long flight, whose head whirls with thoughts of the place that she departed from and the place that she’s going to – gliding through space, not fully being a part of either yet. Not having fully left nor having fully arrived, a space of limbo where you hang between the brightly colored handmade kurtis and an old pair of jeans that knows every curve of your body. The identity starts to feel threatened, perplexed since its called into question once again. 

Every departure is a chance to say goodbye to a part of it. And every arrival an opportunity to sift through and select the pieces you want to hold onto; Each intersection, a chance to consolidate the two and make a conscious choice about who you are and who you are becoming. A choice that should never be taken lightly. I choose love. I choose the word that has pervaded through the entire trip. A word that makes strangers become family instantly because they’ve all come together to serve others. I choose the lessons of maitri (friendship) that a certain Jayeshbhai quietly expresses through his presence. I choose relentless passion for life that Anarben permeates into everything she does. I choose unconditional joy and a search for truth that Madhu tries to live his life by. I choose authenticity that Nimo expresses in his every action. I choose relentless service that Meghna fills her life with. I choose constant quest for a more authentic way of living that Siddharth aspires to. I choose a purity of heart that Sanskruti expresses in the joy of giving. I choose constant experiments with the truth that Neerad so open-heartedly explores. I choose art and beauty that Lahar so effortlessly spreads into each event. I choose the genuineness of Bhagiben, who taught me what giving can mean to someone receiving your gift. I chose the path of cultivation that is made effortless by Mukeshbhai.

I choose the courage and grace of so many others who came to me in the form of guests, but left in the form of friends and teachers. Above all, I choose love and forgiveness – over and over again, until I learn all that I came here to learn.