Blog from Isabel S. Photos from Isabel, Peter, and Bria
It is almost 9:00am as I climb the steps to the dining hall. Still a little groggy after three hours of early-morning meditation and yoga, I feel a nudge a little too forceful and hear in an excited Alec whisper, “Happy Thanksgiving”. My face slightly brightens as I realize what day it is back home in America. I think about my mom boiling cranberries and layering baked mac-and-cheese casserole without my help. Today is my and most of my peers’ first thanksgiving away from home.
All week we’ve been trying to decide how to celebrate the day amongst ourselves in India without traditional food, any means of cooking, or our families. Living at an ashram doesn’t make our endeavor any more convenient: life at Phool Chatti is almost completely booked with a routine schedule of yoga, meditation, chanting, lectures, and the three silent meals that are served to us daily. We are, however, allotted two hours of free time in the afternoon, so our current captain (Emma) spreads word of a meeting on the roof at 2:00pm for a quick Thanksgiving.
One of the first to arrive in the designated spot, I watch my peers accumulate on the roof around me, goofing off until the meeting begins. We start by titling a page in the Shanti group journal “GRATITUDE” with a subtitle reading “THANKSGIVING 2017”. As the book passes from lap to lap, each person writing something they are grateful for, we also popcorn verbal gratitudes, specifically things relating to our semester in India. A few particular gratitudes mentioned were followed by the snapping of fingers (the Carpe Diem way of showing agreement):
THE GANGA… The Ganges river is considered the holiest river in India by Hinduism, the majority of India’s identifying religion. I personally do not identify with Hinduism, but can certainly feel the sacred nature of “Mother Ganga” in its powerful presence. Having seen it before in Varanasi where its waters are grossly polluted and dark in color, I did not expect the Ganga that exists in Rishikesh, closer to its origin point.
Here the river is a surreal limestone green-blue color. It has a strong and speedy current, making it somewhat entrancing to watch up close and difficult to turn away from. Being near such a beautiful, pure body of water feels incredibly refreshing after seeing the horrific pollution of many Indian cities. The Ganga holds mighty cleansing powers, according to Hindu belief. Seeing the river almost always means also seeing people bathing in the river for cleanliness of body, mind, spirit. Their body language tells of their reverence to the mother who washes away sins. My own personal experience with the river includes a boat ride on, a ceremonial dip in, and many meditations by it. It has served me as a great source of inspiration, serenity, fun, and wisdom: for this, I am grateful to and for the Ganga.
AMAZING PEOPLE…India houses some of the most kind, genuine, and interesting people in the world. During this semester I have had opportunity after opportunity to meet new people, and every time I have seized the chance, regret was not a feeling that followed. It began in the San Fransisco airport when I met the group of people with whom I would explore India for 3 months, and snowballed from there. A few unforgettable names/faces stand out:
Rishi Ji was our contact in Jaipur and Jhadol– “what a guy”, as most of us in Shanti would say. His large build and approachable face earned him the nickname, “the B.F.G.” (Big friendly giant). Giving us our first lessons on Indian culture and so many supporting factors of it (history, Hindi, politics, etc.) as well as life truths that many of us still recall, Rishi Ji holds a truly special place in our hearts. He may have talked a heck of a lot, but he certainly had some notable things to say.
Tenzin Tsundue, an activist, poet, and speaker, willingly visited our group to discuss the issue of Tibet in China. He informed us on the decades-long conflict (about which many of us knew very little) and showed a documentary explaining further. He also recited an original poem. The meetup was competely spontaneous, and turned out to be one of our most informative and valuable discussions. Tenzin radiates a sort of positive, gentle energy; I couldn’t help but admire his minimalist lifestyle and passion for his work and art. And his love for ants.
Devinder and his wife Bridge Bala, the couple who owns the farm at which we stayed in Dharamsala, are some of the most humble people I have known. Each very wise and versed in their own occupation, they taught us much about plants, sustainable farming, Indian politics, harvesting, and tea-making. Bridge Bala bakes the sweetest farewell carrot cake; Devender wears the warmest smile and a flat-top traditional cap, always.
The number of amazing people I’ve encountered in India is far beyond counting by now–the place is infested with them. Connecting with people, I realize, is a heavily weighted reason for my coming to India. I have gained so much joy and wisdom from observing and getting to know people in India, and for that, I am very grateful.
WEEK OF MINDFULNESS…Here at Phool Chatti Ashram, our daily lives (beginning at 6:00am and ending at 9:00pm) go as such: early morning meditation, chanting, yogic cleansing, Hatha yoga, breakfast, karma yoga, nature walk, lunch, free time, lecture/discussion, ashtanga yoga, puja, kirtan (sacred singing), dinner, and guided meditation. Mindfulness is heavily stressed and quite unavoidable here.
One gain I will surely take home from India is my understanding of the importance of mindfulness, being aware of the present moment. I’ve been slowly catching on to this understanding for almost three months, and finally have a perfect opportunity to begin practicing…all day, every day, for a full week.
It seems very fitting to me that we spend our second-to-last week here at the ashram, making a conscious effort to remain truly present during the last moments of our semester. I feel a slight internal sting when I think of leaving India and returning to a life without 11 of my favorite people every day. The ashram life continually reminds me to not dwell on the sweet experiences we’ve had or the sadness that will come with parting, but on the perpetual current moment we are sharing together: for this, I am grateful.
The journal finds its way around the circle to me. Skimming over the page, I come to the last written gratitude: “Thanksgiving with fam”. The time reads now almost 3:00pm, time to meet in the meditation hall for a lecture/discussion. My first Thanksgiving away from home comes to a close; I am so grateful to be in India.