Old mantra, new perspectives

So far 2012 has passed by in a blur of activity. At the end of December, one of my best friends arrived from London for a whirlwind trip through Kerala that lasted through the beginning of January (the picture above is the view from our overnight stay on a houseboat). I had scarcely finished saying goodbye to my friend and unpacking my bags when I found myself emptying my closet into a suitcase yet again for the AIF midpoint conference in Mysore. While both trips were fantastic and enriching experiences, I found the transition back to my research project to be a bit overwhelming. As I reassessed my progress and the challenges that lie ahead, I couldn’t shake the general feeling of losing a race against time.

But reflecting on the year so far made me realize how instructive the time spent on those trips really was. Sharing experiences in India with a friend who was seeing the country for the first time and with other fellows brought my attention back to the need to stop focusing on things that are not going as planned, clinging to the unrealistic schedule I had mapped, and to keep my eyes open to the small pleasures in life here. I recently thought back to a simple mantra that I was taught to use in meditation, which used a sequence of two-word phrases (one to match your inhale, one to match your exhale) to help focus on the breath: let go…just be…find joy. While I’ve since let my fledgling meditation practice falter, I think the elements of this mantra reflect strategies that, when I do follow them, have helped me to step out of my workaholic anxiety and embrace all aspects of my work and life in India.

Letting go…

inspecting the ingredients for the feed mixture on our exposure visit

When it comes to planning and scheduling my time, I am about as type-A, obsessive-compulsive as you get. A relic of a time when my entire day was carved into pieces by countless meetings and conference calls, with precious little time to sit and actively DO the work discussed in said meetings, I still write out an hour-by-hour schedule for every single day the prior evening (I know…). In the Rishi Valley, my calendar is already peppered with meal timings, classes, Telugu lessons, and periodic village visits with my mentor. But in addition, there is a constant flow of meeting invitations coming from visitors to the school, many of whom want to hear about our work with the RVSDA, and numerous village meetings and activities that are unrelated to my project.

While my initial instinct tells me that I can’t do everything and be everywhere, I have in many cases sacrificed designated “project time” to accept an invitation. And I have never once regretted it. By releasing the death-grip on my daily schedule, I got to travel with a group of shepherds on an exposure visit to a feed business in a neighboring village; I have exchanged ideas with myriad scholars visiting the campus, discovering unexpected parallels in our work and making new connections (often over delicious tea…bonus); I have seen community members sign up to form forest protection committees, demonstrating to the government that they able and willing stewards of their land; and I attended a conference on the prospective EU-India Free Trade Agreement where a small dairy farmer from the Netherlands engaged with small dairy farmers from the Rishi Valley, discovering remarkable similarities in their challenges. By letting go, I opened myself to a rich array of experiences.

Perspectives from India...
...meet perspectives from the EU

Just being…

After each day’s morning assembly, and at the beginning of every lunch and dinner in the dining hall, everyone pauses to observe a moment of silence. As it has been explained to me, in the Krishnamurti schools, the practice of sitting in silence is intended to focus attention on the present. A worthy goal, though admittedly more often than not my attention is squarely focused on the food sitting in front of me, and how I wish I was eating it at that very moment. On the occasions when I am able to observe silence, to simply be and appreciate my surroundings, I have realized how many aspects of my setup here that I have come to take for granted. For instance, my temporary home above one of the girls’ dormitories turns out to be rather prime real estate. My window faces an open expanse that abuts the dining hall, making it the center of much activity. The clanging bell that signals mealtimes serves as a rather effective backup alarm clock, and I am endlessly amused by the antics of the monkeys that also report for mealtimes, in the hopes of swiping an abandoned morsel. Even better, I get a front row seat for local celebrations passing through the campus, the most recent of which was Sankranti (pictured below).


Finding joy…
…in particular, in things that I previously associated with annoyance and struggle. Namely:

Rickshaws. Though the most convenient means of travel, on my periodic trips to Bangalore I had come to dread every time I needed to take up the negotiating myself, preparing to be asked for double (or, if carrying a backpack or other obvious luggage, triple) the metered fare. But when traveling through Kerala with my friend, I developed a newfound appreciation for them. After too many inordinately long treks in the oppressive heat, replete with perilous street crossings, we simply stopped caring about being overcharged and started taking them for all stretches, long and short. At one point my friend turned to me and remarked on how fun it was to travel by rickshaw, and given the alternative, I found it hard to disagree.

Minor language victories. Telugu certainly takes the cake as one of the most difficult languages I’ve studied. Though I can read at a basic level, crawling over every syllable slowly but surely, the pace of spoken language still leaves me flummoxed every time I attempt conversation with a native speaker. The woman who cleans in my building speaks only a few words of English, so I tend to grab one of my neighbors to translate whenever one-word sentences and vague gesticulations fail us. Recently, when she asked me a question, I decided it was time that I forge ahead on my own…and after about 15 minutes of back and forth, mostly with me alternating between my two favorite Telugu phrases, translated as “please say again, very slowly” and “I don’t understand”, we gradually converged on the agreement that she would come at 4pm rather than 1pm from now on. Success! My new favorite phrase, acquired in order to explain why there was an upside-down plastic container on my floor one day, was how to say, “I’m scared of spiders” (it was too unsettling to let it roam free in my room). Perhaps in my next lesson I can learn how to say, “while I am a grown adult, I often act like a child…”

an everyday occurrence in the RV

Rural traffic. I have been doing a lot of running around the campus in preparation for a half marathon, and because I tend to run in the evening, I have to dodge the parade of rickshaws, cars, tractors, motorcycles, and livestock that come careening down the bumpy roads around that time. I’ve been honked at, stared at, waved at, chased by children, chased by dogs, and even offered cake (!). The livestock in particular can be a touchy affair – unless I go very slowly, and stay as far away as practicable, I tend to spook the animals, leading to much embarrassment as I send some poor shepherd’s flock scattering in every direction. In general, I came to dread the inevitable confrontations.

When my friend came to visit the campus, we went on a brief evening hike. Like clockwork, at 6pm, a shepherd passed by us with his recently gathered flock. The look on my friend’s face was priceless (she is a fellow city-dweller by nature), and it dawned on me how accustomed I have already become to some of these sights; experiencing them with her brought me back to the excitement I felt in my early days in the Rishi Valley at every turn. I have the rest of my life to live in and around cities, but the chance to live in this environment is an opportunity that I can’t afford to take for granted.


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