Archive for March, 2009


A quick note: I’ve realized that I’m incredibly addicted to information- to staying informed about everything.  So as a practice in detachment, I’m going to stop using the Internet for the remainder of my travels.  This isn’t a prescription from some spiritual guru or anything like that. It’s just something that I fell like I need to do in order to grow as aperson.  So that means no more posts for a while.  To the thirty or so of you who have been checking in regularly- thanks for following along.  To the readers who have commented- thanks for the support and displayed interest.  And to my family and friends (aka almost everyone who would be reading this)- I will tell you in person all of the interesting and exciting things I do and see that won’t make it onto this page.

Until then,

M. Craig

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Let me begin by saying that I have no clue what ashrams are all about.  Before I went to Amritapuri, I’d hardly ever even thought about ashrams.  If someone asked me what an ashram was, I either would have done things the Indian way and made something up, or I would have admitted my ignorance.  SO if there’s anything I write pertaining to ashrams that sounds wrong or just plain silly, then feel free to say so, because I’m definitely in a learning process.

The Sivananda Ashram in Neyar Dam, Kerala, has very little in common with Amma’s ashram.  That’s really all I have to compare it to.  There’s the nightly devotional singing of songs in Sanskrit that makes me think of a concert geared toward  my four year old cousin (except hereI don’t try to hide my clapping-along enjoyment).  There’s the amazing food- here two meals a day with as many seconds as you want.  Considering the amount of thirds most people get, I can tell that I’m not the only one who enjoys the food.  This is a further fodder for my theory that good cooking just needs to be made with love.

But the purpose of the Sivananda Ashram is completely different than that of Amma’s.  People went to Amma’s ashram because they wanted a glimpse of divinity.  There were over a thousand people there at one time, and at least one hundred lived there permanently.  Even the devotees who were just visiting tended to stay for months.  Here, people come for the yoga.  Instead of doing your own thing and finding a way to do personal meditation, practically the entire day is planned out.  This has both its good and bad sides, but here’s what the schedule looks like:

5.20am – wake-up bell

6.00am – satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)

7.30am – tea time

8.00am – Asana Class

10.00am – vegetarian meal

11.00am – karma yoga

1.30pm – tea time

2.00pm – lecture (usually on how to live in a yogic way)

3.30pm – asana class

6.00pm – vegetarian meal

8.00pm – satsang

10.30pm – lights out

It’s a lot of yoga.  The main attraction here is a month-long teacher training course.  About a third of the people at the ashram now are involved with that (their schedule is much more demanding).  As for me, it’s been over three months since my Yoga to the People days, so I’m a littlesore.  But it’s great to be moving again.  And the breathing exercises are really interesting.  I’ll be here for about a week, so more on Sivananda later.

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It was like a battle.  That was the first thing that came to my mind.  In the middle of the abandoned-dirt-plot turned fairground, people dressed in saris and dhotis and a few camera-handed tourists pressed into a ring.  At its edge, people balanced on their tiptoes and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders lifted up their chins for a better look.  All eyes were fixed on the drummers.  Lined up four men across and four men back, they wore their leg-length drums at their hip, hanging from a sash across their shoulders.  The drumsticks were curved back at the ends from hitting tight animalskin at full muscle force again and again.  You could see it on their faces, and in the sweat that poured down their chests and soaked into their white rib necked vests.  They were warriors.  Their battle was in their beat- aggressive and competitive, but contained and controlled.  Their purpose was in their eyes and in the quick flash of a smile; they were there to have fun.

The elephant festival happens once every year, and the drummers always lead the march before the elephants.  Hardly like a conventional American balustraded parade, the elephant march went through Varkala’s streets with an air of controlled chaos.  When the drummers stopped, people pressed in around them.  When they started marching again, some people randomly joined the parade followed behind them.  This was a religious festival, including a procession of floats with statues of Hindu gods, but it easily could have been Saint Ubaldo in Jessup or the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.  Regardless of culture or religion or reason, the energy felt the same.

Now this may seem like I’m getting totally off topic here, but stay with me.  I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the Indian newspapers every morning.  Just like the rest of the world, India’s media is focused on covering ‘the Economic Crisis,’ usually in the light of what the U.S. is doing.  Despite an editorial love of Obama, it’s not American citizens who have won recent praise.  It’s the French.  An editorial in The Hindu this morning praised French citizens who took to the streets on March 19th in protest of their government’s shady response to financial woes.  I won’t rehash the details, because I wasn’t there.  It was well covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

While the French are being praised for standing up against bad policy, on the next page of The Hindu is an op-ed from The New York Times.  It’s Paul Krugman’s piece about Obama’s Bush-esque, sure to fail (according to him) bank bailout plan.  As the world is looking us with patient expectation, wondering what our new president will do differently, maybe now’s the time for us to make sure that he does it right.  I’m not saying that we should emulate the French, but maybe we can learn from them.  And perhaps a mixing of Indian and French is the way for us to go.  We can tap into that energy that comes from mass gatherings–whether it’s a parade of elephants, Saint Ubaldo, or crazy costumed New Yorkers–and attach a message to it.  Parades and festivals are not foreign to us.  The idea of protesting doesn’t have to be scary.  Read about the issues, get your stance straight, and then figure out what to do next. The point is to do something.  Or at the very least start talking about what we need to do.

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Preface: Ok, well here it is.  For those of you who don’t know why this may seem like a tail-between-the-legs, admitting I was wrong moment, the short story is that while many of my friends joined the election-spurred Obama craze, I chose not to participate.  The long story is linked here, where I wrote a pre-election op ed for NYU’s student newspaper on why I was refusing to vote, as a protest against a flawed voting system.  I do still think our voting system is flawed and I do still think that people have fallen into an ‘Obama will change things’ mindset instead of trying to change things themselves.  That said, now I can get on with it.

“Coming from?”  … I swear I get asked the question at least ten times a day.  At least half of those times, the conversation continues as follows:

“America,” I say with a smile.

“Obaaaaaamaaaaa!” they return with glee.

On the bus from Amma’s Ashram to Varkala, the cliff top beach town where I’m staying for a few days, a man turned to me and we shared this very exchange.  I swear he looked at me with more respect after I told him that I was an American.  He tapped the arm of the man next to him and said something in Malayalam.  The only word I could understand was ‘Obama.’  The other man looked at me with a smile and sang the name.  As the bus churned forward and I stared out at the passing palm trees and rice paddies, “I’m proud to be an American”  very nearly started to play through my head.

Although it does seem that India and the U.S. have had cordial relations for quite a while, and these relations are certainly strengthened by a common enemey in the militant insurgency in Pakistan (I say that from what I’ve gathered from the Indian newspapers I’ve been reading), I have to admit that Barak Obama has lifted the view of Americans in India. It does go beyond that, though.  I run into many European travelers here, and the sentiment is similiar. Hopefully Obama will change things, people say.  Hopefully now that Obama is in office things will get better.

That brings me back to my primary concern with Obamaphila; the tendancy to hope Obama will fix all of the escalating problems we’re facing, and to use that as an excuse not to think how ordinary people can change their communities for the better.  Obama has done this for us- he has made us look better on the world stage.  Perhaps he’s even sparked a new way of thinking and living that promotes civic engagement.  But unless everyone does what they can to push for the promise of  ‘change’ that got Obama elected, then this slowly growing confidence in the U.S. will quickly dissipate.  One man cannot change an entire nation.  But maybe one man can change an entire people, and through them mold a country that reflects that change we are all looking for.

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There are about an even mix of foreigners (mostly Europeans, Americans, Australians) and Indians here, but it’s the amount of foreigners that amaze me. This ashram holds a Hindu temple. It follows the Hindu religion. And yet it is open to people who have no interest in Hinduism whatsoever. It seems as if many people come here for the meditation and spirituality, for the inner silence that we all can reach if we just sit and stop thinking about every little thing.

That’s what I’ve been doing here mostly. You can call it meditation, silence, introspection, relaxation. It’s as if I’ve found something that’s so missing in the goal-oriented West. When your life is always about achieving something or attaining something, how can you ever live in the moment?

There was one exercise in the Meditation Class I took here that really stuck with me. Everyone in the class got up and just walked. We were supposed to focus only on our footsteps, walking slowly at first and then slower and slower and slower. As I focused on how my foot felt when it touched the ground, and then how my calf muscle felt when it slowly pushed away, there was no room in my mind for worry.

I know this sounds incredibly cliché, but since I’ve come here I feel so much lighter. I’ve approached everything here with an open mind and that was the essential first step. I’m still not completely sure what meditation’s all about, but when I sit here on the beach and try to let all stray thoughts slip from my mind just as the waves recede back out to the sea, I kind of get it. I feel how I’m connected to all of the trees and grass and people around me, and it brings peace into the knot in my chest where anxiety usually sits. It’s difficult to explain, because I’m just beginning to think about it in this way. But I’ll keep meditating and I’ll keep trying. For anyone else who’s interested, I recommend the walking meditation. You never know what you can realize about yourself.

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The Ashram

The posts have been sparce lately because I’ve been at Amma’s Ashram in Amritapuri on the Keralan coast.  Internet time here is limited to half an hour and I’ve been spending most of my time learning about meditation and observing the fascinating community that’s grown up around this woman.

There’s more community here than I ever felt at Auroville.  Whether this is because of the size of the ashram- thanks to ashramites being housed in high rises, you can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes- or because of the common devotion to Amma that everyone here shares, I don’t know.  But I had a conversation with an ashramite who said that she’d lived in communities her whole life and now has been living here at this ashram for five years.  One of the major difference between ecovillages and ashrams is that there’s no consensus.  Amma has the last word on everything, period.  There’s no mediated discussion or talk of how the community will grow, but then most people only spend a few months here and then go home.  They don’t live here permanently, and their purpose for being here is inner spiritual growth, not socializing.  Although plenty of socializing does go on (something this woman complained about).

When I left Auroville, Priya left me with a nugget of wisdom: For a community to be successful, it needs to be united by work.  At this ashram, there’s a practice called ‘seva’ where everyone does two hours of volunteer work a day.  Seva varies from washing dishes to doing laundry to working in the recycling shop. Priya’s words seem to ring true here, where everyone is on the same level, working together and contributing to the ashram.

The environmental awareness within these walls is also pleasantly surprising.  The recycling is sophisticated- with food waste collected separately and everyone encouraged to use reusable bottles and bags.  Signs about conserving water and energy abound in the visitor dorms.  The ecology center shows environmental films twice a week.  Though this is a place for spiritual growth, awareness of our connection to nature seems to be a big part of it.

Well, I need to run!  I’ll be at the ashram for a while longer, and will try to post about some of the really interesting things I’m learning here.

Until next time.

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A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

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