My friends Vicki Robin and Duane Elgin had visited Mitraniketan (mitra = friend, nikaten = abode or home) years ago and found it exceptionally inspiring – which led me to contact the school. Unfortunately timing made it a truncated visit (booking flights can be tricky as some of the short hops such as to Pune have terrible connections and don’t run each day) – so sadly I wasn’t able to offer a short training to staff as we had hoped. At least I was able to leave them a copy of our new book, Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening. We arrived on a Sunday which is a resting day – and a key staff person was away for the day. And then the headmistress had an unfortunate fall (bruised and needing stitches, but ok)… So our orientation and reception were limited and a bit rought. Fortunately a special program had been planned by a visiting guru from Trivundrum Guru Muni Nara Yana Prasad. There was singing, dancing, performances by students, a delicious feast (served on banana leaves)… and a very looong address (all in the local language of course) to the children by the guru (over an hour! The children remained very attentive!). I was able to chat with him later that day and he gave me the jist of his talk: you must develop yourself (I have learned India’s national motto is ‘know thyself’) and deeply understand-accept-support yourself as well as learning about the world and developing skills. Then you will have two legs to walk on as you travel through life: one of the self (wisdom), the other of knowledge.
We enjoyed lovely chats with the various volunteers (several couples from Germany, students from Germany, Finland & US) and had the good fortune of welcoming Lee Morgan, of Antioch, who has been a long time supporter (indeed, his father was present for the founding – in the 50’s I believe). Mitraniketan has a long history of innovation and wholistic education with a prescient emphasis on sustainability and environment, serving poor village children who otherwise would not have educational opportunity. Sadly, they are facing many challenges in the past couple of years: Ironically this arises from the recent great economic advances in India. As the economy, opportunities and wages have improved it has become increasingly difficult to attract and retain qualified teachers and staff. The campus is out in the countryside with no amenities – an hour from Thiruvananthapuram – so not a desirable place to live.
We left the school Monday afternoon in time to fly to Pune. We soon learned a few key lessons for domestic flights in India: avoid booking connecting flights on different airlines! There is no coordination between them – you have to pick up your bags and recheck them in. They each have different regulations, often land at different terminals, and have rather restricted weight limits – so we got dinged to pay overweight baggage – and, since the first flight was delayed – stressed for time to get to the second flight. The drama of connection was increased when the second flight refused to allow my walking poles to be carried – so after getting to security I had to back track all the way back to check in – and by then time for luggage was closed! Fortunately there was a dedicated attendant who promised to get it on to the plane – grabbed the bag and ran off… Kathy stood firm at the boarding gate till I ran back up … I was so happy to see those walking sticks come out of the baggage carrier! Truly we have had guardian angels all along the way on this trip….
Upon arrival at Pune airport – we were welcomed with a sign saying “welcome dear Susan & Kathy’, along with wide open arms and a beautiful smile from the charming Gaus, a ‘product’ of Maher community, as he was taken off the streets out of child labor at the age of 8. Sister Lucy had insisted she send someone to pick us up from the airport. We were immediately bathed in the open-hearted, loving, compassionate energy of Maher (which means Mother’s home). We enjoyed an extraordinary time with founder Sister Lucy and the wonderful people and inspiring projects she has manifested. This is an organization worth supporting and nurturing. I have never experienced such pure love and joy radiating from everyone. And I learned deep, powerful lessons about welcoming. When we arrived at the Center – the blackboard had our names on it! … and inside there was a beautiful sand drawing (rangoli) with flowers and our name. The children sang to us, swarmed us with hugs, marked our heads with the binde/spot of blessing sometimes yellow, sometimes red… always running down my forehead in the humid heat (– the nosepads on my glasses are now dyed red!). We soon learned this was a ritual to be repeated at every stop we made in visiting the various schools. And then, when it was the eve of our departure – even though we were such short timers of just a few days – we were again honored with our names written, gifts given, etc. Everyone is honored as special and unique – I was stunned to find we were given equal honoring to a 6 month volunteer who has helped to write a handbook. Sister Lucy’s love is unconditional and complete for everyone. And it spills over to each and every soul there. The healing power is so beautiful and potent…
Sister Lucy was inspired to begin this work when as a young nun she experienced a tragic incident in 1991. A 7 month pregnant woman came to her convent late at night begging for refuge from her violent husband who wanted to get rid of her to make room for another woman. Sister Lucy was not authorized to admit the woman and it was against convent policies – so she had to turn her away that night. She went to help her the next day but found out it was too late: the woman had been attacked by her husband – doused with gasoline and lit on fire… She visited the woman in hospital as she was dying… the baby as well was killed by the heat of the fire. Over the next few years of mourning and grief and with help of her mentor, Father Francis D’Sa, Sister Lucy catalyzed her grief and pain and resolved to do something for such battered women. With no resources and without the support of her order, she began offering refuge to women – and with the women came children. Over the years her community has grown to over 30 schools and centers and she has welcomed over 2300 women through the years. She lives her commitment that no one will ever be turned away.
The model is brilliant: the women are given love, unconditional acceptance and safety along with food, shelter and clothing… as they heal, they begin helping out with cooking, cleaning etc. and they are taught various trades of sewing, candle making and crafts. If they cannot be reunited with their families and choose to stay as part of Maher – they become housemothers to the children in the schools. Each group of children (boys separate from girls) has two housemothers – one to do the cooking, the other to do the laundry-bathing-cleaning, etc. So it becomes a self-sustaining and growing community of healing and love, with each new resident expanding capacity to accept more community members. Many women come to the center in need – and many children are dropped off or found by staff: orphans, abandoned children, children put to labor without schooling, slum children, unwed mothers (extremely taboo in India), mentally ill or developmentally delayed women found wandering the streets… All are welcomed. “There is always room for one more.” Many of the children prove to be star pupils, winning state prizes and competitions… and then out of love and loyalty choosing to contribute their talents and genius to the organization.
The food is delicious and nutritious, the singing plentiful. Each day includes meditation, yoga, martial arts, training in traditional dance as well as school studies as vital parts of the healing needed for these neglected and traumatized children.. The program is deeply spiritual (with a fierce commitment to interfaith) and values based. The children attend public schools with tutoring and extra curricular activities at Maher. At one large center, they house the mentally ill and developmentally delayed women each in their wing – plus a children’s wing – and they all intermingle for meals and community activities. What a healing, holistic community! They also work in the slums nearby – running a preschool and supporting/spawning dozens and dozens of self-help groups. One village school had started 97 empowerment groups – nearly 50% of the communities entire population! (sort of like micro-lending groups). Maher, “Rising to New Life” – is interfaith, peace embodied – a living place of compassionate listening. My friend Anne Stadler was so wise in directing me to visit here: I learned so much and feel I have deepened my capacity for loving and listening through my short time there. Sister Lucy is the master and essence of compassion. There are growing pains now – as the impact of success and growth is stretching Sister Lucy and the organization to the max: they are beginning to develop as a model and training of others to replicate their system rather than continuing to expand.
For more details please enjoy the blog of a fellow volunteer, Pam Jensen: http://mahersupporter.wordpress.com/ Pam is also from Seattle and we are now working to create a Friends of Maher circle here (along with planning for Sister Lucy & Gaus’s Seattle visit in September 2013!)
After Maher, we spend a few days with a friend-colleague from Practice of Peace & Spiritied Work days: Arun Wakhlu was such a gracious host. We landed on his doorstep at this half point of our travels in need of laundry, post office, massage, pedicure-manicure, travel agent, bank, etc… all needs were met! This was my second Ayurvedic massage. The first one was the night of backwater boat trip in Kerala in a very primitive and backwater place… This was a nicer place with more skilled masseuse. Still – the table is made of HARD wood with no padding! I did request a towel for a bit of padding under knees etc. And this time, two young women worked on me simultaneously in a kind of choreographed routine. They slather you in think, warm, medicated oils and do many swooping motions up and down your limbs and body, with some more focused massage as well. No draping or cushions. Followed by a steam: you sit in a sort of cabinet with your head out… In the backwaters I added the treatment where they pour oil on your forehead: a flow down a wick, that felt like the wings of an angel or eyelashes of God… very relaxing.
In Pune we had a chance to visit Arun’s inspiring organization, Pragati Leadership – which does training and organizational development very similar to what I do. He has built an impressive organization with a large staff. We joined their staff potluck lunch and I shared some simple exercises, which they greatly appreciated for team building and personal benefit. I led a simple meditation on self compassion and appreciation. I also taught one to use ‘on the spot’ – ‘3 Breaths’ – first for self, second for client or patient or team, third for community or world: just in that minute of 3 breaths you can ‘reboot’ and shift your energy to equanimity and compassion. (Try it right now!!). And I gave everyone our Conversation Café card and explained the process. They were familiar with World Café and were delighted to gain another tool and understand some guidelines as to when to use which… It was delightful to get to share with colleagues!
That afternoon we got to see some of the great work Arun’s family foundation is doing – working with individuals in the slums, teaching leadership, vocational guidance and coaching for entrepreneurship. They encourage individuals to consider what they like doing – what they have a passion for – and to develop a career plan, rather than just taking any short term job that comes along. For example, they notice with the rising of the middle class and economy, many gyms are being built and there is a need for personal trainers – so they are helping some young men and women who love physical exercise to get that training. We met with two groups of women who are learning to make jewelry – and in the process, developing confidence and a support group. When asked how many would never leave the house before this opportunity (other than to go food shopping at the side of their husband) – nearly all the young women raised their hand. So this work is life changing indeed. They were thrilled to get to practice their sales techniques when I of course agreed to make a number of purchases!
It was wonderful to spend time with Arun – a kind, thoughtful and deeply spiritual person as well as a gifted teacher. I will never look at a table cloth the same – as he uses it as a teaching metaphor for how we are all of the same cloth – all consciousness – all life – the cloth…. The various items on the cloth are an illusion of separateness – the plate of you/me, the cups and saucers of Islam or Christianity or Hinduism, etc. Arun schooled us in some basic Hindu principles, stories and history. For example, Krishna’s flute as a metaphor for us all: it must be completely empty inside – no spec of dust – or no tone can come… Surrender! Let go of attachment! Shakti & Shiva… the particle and the wave… Lovely chats. We also learned about the miracle tree – richest source of nutrition: known as horse radish or drumn stick tree – Moringa Oleifera. Check it out!
The Caves of Aurangabad – Ellora and Ajunta
We left Arun’s loving care and headed to Aurungabad where we were awed and wowed one day at the stunning Ellora Caves (34 caves with ornate carvings – Buddhist, Jain and Hindu – over a 2km area – 600 to 1000 AD) and the next at more ancient Ajunta Caves (30 caves with exquisite Buddhist paintings and carvings from as early as 2nd century BC). Both of these areas were carved out of monolithic rocks into an astonishing array of temples and monastic dwellings. Ellora was carved from the top down. Ajunta – from the outside in… None are caves at all, but chambers carved out of solid rock with chisel and hammer. Unfathomable work. The paintings use sophisticated and realistic techniques of perspective, coloration, detailed representation of daily life as well as of stories from Buddha’s life. Truly World Heritage sites.
We were a bit cranky with our hotel in Arungabad– booked by Arun’s agent. “The Gentleman’s Hotel” was at the outer edge of town rather isolated/surrounded by unsavory looking streets. Very run down – dusty, all plumbing leaking or non functional, grungy peeling walls, nothing attractive – seemed we were the only customers. But the guys who ran it were so super-attentive and kind and protective – our hearts softened. For example, on the second day we had our sweet driver drop us off at the Internet Café so he could finally begin his way back to Pune. We assumed we’d hail a rickshaw to get back to the hotel. After an hour, lo and behold the manager of hotel showed up to drive us back! Also, the hotel’s food turned out to be –as usual on this whole journey- excellent. Oh the food in India. We’ve scarcely had a mediocre meal, never bad and almost always FABULOUS. So many varieties of sauces and curries and chapatti-type breads. Wow.
Tonight – after a long and frustrating day of delays and thus missed flight connections – we are enscounced at Navdanya – the organization founded by my shero, Vandana Shiva, to preserve the seed and promote Earth Democracy. More on that in the next blog!
Another favorite India Taxi story: our driver from the airport in Dehra Dun pulled over at one point and said, ‘just a few minutes please…’ He proceeded to do some shopping.. and after another 10 minutes of driving, pulled over to deliver the groceries to his daughert! I love it: life is life and goes on, weaving its way naturally – without the drastic separation of ‘work’ vs personal life.