Saturday, December 24, 2011

Letting go...

I have difficulty in dealing with people who try to control my life. Who ask me to do certain things which I am not willing to do. My initial response to these requests (which I interpret as "orders") is a form of psychological reactance---I will do opposite of what is asked of me or defiantly refuse to comply. Being an Indian and raised in a conservative brahmin family, I am expected to be an obedient daughter, daughter-in-law, wife ....but I have resisted all forms of control. Fortunately for me, my husband pretty much lets me do whatever I am interested in, and has supported my pursuance of meditation--which includes long absences from home. However, I have not been comfortable with requests from my mother, and resist what I see as attempts to control my life.

My practice of meditation helps me resolve this kind of situation as well. Initially, so enamored I was with Vipassana meditation, that I totally refused to perform rituals of prayer and puja or visit temples. If I did so, I would do it with reluctance. Now, having a much better understanding of the practice as well as the traditions and rituals I was raised in, the conflict is minimized greatly.My teachers in meditation always enquired about my family and advised that I never quarrel or neglect family responsibilities in my pursuance of the path. Addressing the conflicts that sometimes seem to arise in visiting temples and the meditation practice which is devoid of rituals, the teacher in my last 30 day course in Jaipur said---Radhi, when you can give metta to all beings in this universe, small and big, visible and invisible, why can't you share that metta with with gods and goddesses in temples and the invisible beings there? That resonated very well with my thoughts as well, and erased the few traces of reluctance I might have had in visiting temples.

However, two days ago when my mother called and asked me to visit the temple on a particular day along with my entire family, my old self popped up its resistance to orders and control. Being the good, polite daughter that I was, I gave a non-committal answer. I struggled with the request for about an hour or so, and then suddenly stopped--I realised how attached I was to my ideas, my views, my opinions. I realised that I had no problems going to a temple, my resistance was what I perceieved to be my mother's attempt at control--telling me what I should do on a particular day. I decided to let go of that perception. I decided to get dis-engaged with my interpretations, my thoughts and my opinions. Ah! what freedom there is when one is willing to let go! I happily went to the temple with Raja and Pavithra and covered a few more errands before returning home.

While the above incident required some deliberate effort in order to put in practice my new awakening, in some other instances, it is relatively smooth and effortless. As when I causally ran into an ex-colleague at my university and she looked away when I greeted her. For a fraction of second, I felt insulted and my mind was about to start interpreting the incident in negative ways and I effortlessly changed it with thoughts of compassion. Maybe she has some problem? why would she ignore me otherwise? May she come out of her difficulties....The next day I happened to meet her again at a common friend's Christmas party and while she looked a trifle sheepish, I could respond with the same warmth and care as I always had in previous occasions. Liberation! liberation from the bondages of emotions and attachment.

I could see the gains of my last course at Jaipur being sustained in my life outside of the course.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


It was a tutorial on Regression (Statistics). After working a number of problems with the students, I was instructing them the steps to find the Regression Line on SPSS. There are very few students in the tutorial class, so I walked to this quiet girl to see how she was progressing with her work. I guided her and then asked her to write the equation for the Regression line. As she hesitated, I told her the equation---Y(hat) = bX + a
Her fingers opened and closed, and she tried to put her pencil on paper, but couldn't write Y...and when she did after a few trials, she couldn't get the 'hat' correctly on Y. I gently asked her to do it but was very surprised that she couldn't write more than that. Only then it dawned on me that she was feeling overwhelmed with my presence next to her. Her anxiety was so much that she couldn't write this simple equation.

I moved away, but was quite taken aback by her behavior. And yet it was somewhat familiar......many years ago I was such a student...scared of the teacher in school, afraid to make mistakes, afraid of looking stupid, with a background of comments such as "Can't you do such a simple thing?" " you are so slow" "how long you take to grasp such a simple thing!" whirring in my head.

Its been a long journey for me since those days of ignorance and fear. To some extent life's experiences teach one to become confident and competent, knocking off some of the fear & anxiety. However, a slow and steady transformation came about ever since I attended courses in Vipassana meditation and started practicing regularly. People who knew me in my teens and twenties are amazed at the changed person I have become.

Focusing on the breath coming in and going out of the nostrils helps to concentrate the mind. And this concentration brings about a sense of confidence in the person, for concentration helps one to be focused when engaged in a task and thus working far more efficiently than an unfocused person. This greater efficiency in carrying out tasks increases the person's confidence. This is one of the many benefits of meditation.Staying on task, noticing when the mind has strayed by distractions, gently getting it back on task--this sounds so simple but can become a challenge for people who are unused to meditation. Like the girl in my class. Performing simple actions such as writing down an equation became so impossible because her mind was overcome with fear. The reactive part of her brain could only experience fear and anxiety blocking the higher order cognitive processes.

We rarely understand the necessity to train our mind to become free from fear and anxiety. We are only interested in stuffing it with more and more information even before the mind knows how to deal with this information. Dealing with information becomes easier when the mind is concentrated and negative emotions are kept out of the way of information-processing.

I do my bit of teaching meditation to as many children as I can and who are interested in joining the courses we conduct. But I often wonder how I can reach out to a larger audience. A lot of people are unconvinced about the benefits of meditation or are just lazy to practice it regularly. Because, unlike most of the activities in the present day world, it is not a quick-fix therapy, cannot be given in bite-sized modules or crash courses. It requires some valuable time off from the busy schedules that people are currently involved. Little do they realise that that time devoted to meditation can transform their lives removing layers and layers of fear and anxiety, like it did mine!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thank you for the music.....

It was a great weekend---4th---6th November, Kalaa Utsavam 20011.
It began with Shaan taking us down memory lane with Kishoreda's hits from the 1950s to the 70s..Some of the memorable songs he sang were : Phoolon ke raang se, Tum bin jaoon kahan, Om Shanthi Om, Jaan ne Jaan.
I was a little disappointed that he didn't sing much of the songs picturised on Rajesh Khanna...which brought romance as well as pathos as in "Chingari Koi badke..." and other Amar Prem songs and Safar. But it looked like Shaan chose only fast paced songs of Kishoreda.
After about one and half hours of taking us into a world of Kishoreda, Shaan regaled us with his own popular Bollywood hits. I loved his "Jabse tere naina.." from Sawariya, "Chaand Sifarish."from Fanaa, Tanha Dil from his own album. Lovely evening!

The next day was a Dhrupad performance by Ustad Hussain Sayeedudin and his sons Nafeesudin and Aneesudin. It was really awesome! It was the first time Raja and I attended a concert in Dhrupad and we were truly awe-struck at the way Ustadji sang inspite of having a bad throat. He explained the Raaga he was going to sing before each piece which is really required for music illiterates like us!
Elaborating in this style of music at the end of the concert, Ustadji said that it was a music of devotion, in praise of dieties in temples, where the singers would sit in front of the dieties and sing while people sat behind the singers. He then commented that now he sings with people in front, so we are his gods! Maybe that was a hint on how commercial concerts have become with entertainment its primary focus.

On the 6th November evening it was time for the well-known Bollywood singer Kavita Krishnamurthy and her husband Dr. L Subramaniam, the Violin maestro. Actually I wasn't sure what to expect because I have never heard them do a concert together.

Kavita sang the first half and began with the beautiful bhajan, Shri Rama Chandra krupanu dharaman... of Sage Tulsidas, she followed it by that wonderful, melodious song.. Pyar hua Chupke se.. from 1942 A Love Story. Her other lovely song was from Saaz--"Baadal ghumad bad aaye ". Allah tero naam and a lovely soothing ghazal were the other memorable numbers she sang. She concluded the first half of the concert with a tillana accompanied by her stepson Ambi Subramiam.
The second half of the concert began with a splendid performance by Dr. Subramaniam and son Ambi on the violin. They played the Kalyani varnam in Adi Taal "Vanajakshi.." a piece I had learned on the veena. My happiness knew no bounds as it was a piece I loved and knew so well. They played the varnam at varying speeds keeping us mesmerised with the music.
With a tillana again, this time with Kavita singing it as well, the wonderful program came to an end.

It was a great experience attending these concerts: It helped me appreciate the richness of classical Indian music as well as enjoy the light heartedness of Bollywood music (Shaan). I am now eagerly looking forward to the next weekend of Balasai Flute and an evening with the poet Gulzar.
Thank you Kaala Utsavam 2011!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

30-days at Dhamma Thali, Jaipur: Part 1

Even as I begin to write this I wonder if I would ever be able to express what I went through in the 30-days of Vipassana meditation this July -August.
Although I have been practicing this form of meditation for the past 16 years, the recent courses since 2009--the long courses have been very powerful in uprooting some deep negative habit patterns in a way that I wasn't particularly conscious about. My engagement in courses --both adult and children's courses have been a lot more in these recent years than ever before.

It was my first visit to Jaipur. I followed the instructions that the course manager emailed me: take a pre-paid taxi to the center. Jaipur reminded me of Hyderabad in the 70s (except for the pink buildings). Registration being done, as I walked around the center, I was struck by the number of peacocks strutting around freely, talking in their peacock language. There were a whole school of pigeons, a number of monkeys (Langurs) and a variety of birds of different hues. This was going to be my home for the next 30 days---no connection with the outside world.

The course started and I easily slipped into the routine. It didn't take long for my hyperactive mind to calm down and focus on the respiration. Ofcourse there were some days when I would get restless, but generally, I could remain focused for the major portion of the sittings. Even though I had very few hours of sleep in the night, I felt very rested in the morning.

When Vipassana was introduced on the 11th day, I was surprised that I could actually sit during adhitana ( the one hour motion-less group sitting). Wow Radhi! you have got it all correct! I thought gleefully to myself. From time to time I reminded myself that this was "annicca" (impermanent) and things could change any moment. And change came in a big way on the 21st day (August 2nd)

I got up in the morning and found that I couldn't stand! There was pain in my left foot --a feeling one gets when nerves get twisted. I somehow walked to the Dhamma Hall which was only a 2-minute walk from my room, but found it very difficult to get to the Dining Hall for breakfast later. On my way back after breakfast I met the teacher, and explained my strange condition. She gave me a pain balm and I happily went away thinking that a hot water fomentation could be another way to reduce pain.

The pain did not fact it got worse. I spent the morning meditating in my room and managed to limp to the dining hall for lunch. The good part of the afternoon was also spent meditating in my room. In the evening, the Dhamma volunteer gave me a stick for support and I could manage to get to the Hall for the group sitting and discourse. I sat on a chair behind everyone. After the discourse the male teacher got me a regular walking stick and I limped back to my room. The teacher asked me to stay in my room the next morning and breakfast and lunch would be served to me in my room itself.

The next 2 days my foot got worse: fomentation ( hot and cold), balms, pain-killer---did nothing to improve the condition and now the foot was swollen. I asked for turmeric powder and made a paste and applied it...the Dhamma sevika said she would try and get me "chuna" (quicklime). So finally on the 4th of August, in the afternoon the angel (dhamma sevika) got me chuna and I made a paste of turmeric and chuna, warmed the cup with the help of a candle and applied the paste on my foot.

The next day I was able to walk better..and in another day I gave up the walking stick and sat on a "chowki" (low stool) instead of a chair.....and by the time the course ended, gave up the "chowki" --on metta day (Day 29) I could sit on my cushion on the ground.

30-days at Dhamma Thali, Jaipur: Part 2

The incident of my foot and the experience of those last 10 days were invaluable in my understanding of Dhamma --the laws of nature.

Many times in the children's courses I have explained to them that anything that is born, grows, blooms and then decays and dies. Pain came on its own, grew in intensity, reached its peak and then had to decay and die. I saw that happening through my experience.

In the beginning, on the first day I did think---maybe I am not worthy of a 30 day course, I should have gone for courses of shorter duration. I thought --I have learned everything that I can--worked with sincerity and now this? I felt like calling Raja and asking him to come over and take me away back to Singapore.

And then wisdom dawned.....let me put to practice what I have learned. My foot hurts when I walk--that was the truth of the moment. However, it did not prevent me from meditating when I was seated. So I focused on my respiration, calmed my agitated mind and focused on the sensations on my body without reacting to them. I found that whenever I rolled in the thoughts mentioned above, my mind got agitated and I was making things difficult for myself. I realized through experience that a calm and focused mind is a rested mind and a sensible mind that worked towards solutions.

Having thus calmed my mind, I worked towards getting to the Dhamma Hall every evening for the group sitting and discourse--it was difficult but not impossible. It was not impossible because my mind was calm and focused and could accept the reality as it presented itself. The discourses were so helpful. It was as if Goenkaji was speaking to me personally.

He said: Storms may come up from time to time...face them bravely... it could happen due to some deep seated negativity (sankhara) which would not have arisen if one had not worked it is a good opportunity to clear oneself from the negativity.
Marananu sati: (awareness of death) what if death come in the next minute...would you want your mind to be in a state of agitation? This will lead to the next mind state which would be of a similar quality.

Another useful point made in his discourse was "chittanu passana" --Awareness of the mind, which is one part for the four establishments of Mindfulness. Very frequently my mind would engage in conversations with some people in my life. She says I will say this.. then she will respond in this way and then I will say this in return and on and on.....!
I began to observe this pattern of conversations in my mind...whenever it occurred--I would just notice it---Oh here it is again! and my mind would quickly abandon it and return to the focus of respiration and sensations in my body.

It was a liberating experience--to cut the chatter in my mind, to break the generation of negative thoughts, to realize that everyone was suffering in their own way and every one was hurting others through their own ignorance. Some of the conversations in my mind were painful, yet I was indulging in them--I was doing that because of my own ignorance and what great attachment to this madness!

Another liberating experience was non-identification with whatever arose in the mind and body. Constant observation, noticing of the happenings in the mind and body paved the way for a gradual detachment or non-identification with them. I could watch my thoughts as they came up without getting involved with the contents; I could observe the pain, the swelling of my foot as it happened without getting perturbed or worried.

When I returned from Jaipur, I was transformed-- I knew I had changed. There were provocations for anger--but all that I felt was surprise--surprise that people could behave in a way that was different from my expectation. And compassion towards them...they don't know what they are doing! I felt lighter and happier than ever before.

My daughter Akanksha said that so beautifully: Amma is so happy ever since she returned from India.
Yes, it is not just an ordinary happiness one experiences when one returns to a family after a gap of one and half is a happiness from deep within.... gratitude for being born in this era when I could receive the teaching in its purity, gratitude to the noble person who showed the way and people who preserved the tradition and brought it to us to learn and experience.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tamil speaking

I have always been intrigued with my proficiency in Tamil. I do speak fluently in informal settings and am quite comfortable doing so. However, when I have to teach meditation to children which calls for public speaking in Tamil...I find it difficult. I don't sound confident and my voice sounds shaky. So I rehearse a lot before I teach..its ok...but just ok.

Recently, I had to speak to a person (an Indian) in Tamil over the phone---he spoke very little English and he needed help for his son who was coming to Singapore to study in a school here. I had no problem speaking and counselling him and he was happy that he could speak in his native language to a person in a foreign land.

In Kuantan, Malaysia when I was discussing this language issue with a Tamil speaking volunteer, she admitted to me that she wasn't confident in speaking in Tamil, although her entire primary school was in Tamil-medium. She said that in social settings, she speaks Malay, and since that language was the dominant language, the Tamil she spoke also had a number of Malay words. She said even her Tamil friends and relatives spoke a language mixed with Tamil and Malay.

Yesterday I met a Singaporean Tamil friend and what he said was even more interesting. He said he could read and write Tamil very well, but had trouble speaking--both formally and informally. The fact that this friend learned Tamil in school explained his proficiency in reading and writing.

My reading and writing of Tamil is not very good while my informal spoken Tamil is reasonably good. I say reasonable because I do find it difficult to keep out English words for coming into the conversations I have with people.

At home I do make it a point to speak to my husband in Tamil. However, when I really want to convey something important I switch to English. I speak to my girls in Tamil as well, but they usually respond to me in English. Needless to say the girls do not speak very well and have trouble understanding at times, and I have always been accused of not really teaching them their native language.

In recent years I have been putting in efforts to learn to read and write in Tamil. While I have improved a great deal, its not yet at the stage I would like it to be.

However, it always seems intriguing to me that English, which is actually a foreign language, is actually the language I can speak, read & write and teach. While I struggle with Tamil. All to do with education? with writing and passing exams? How are we expected to learn our native language when we don't learn it in school?

I learn by reading and with a dictionary and now through the internet. Its slow, but I know I am learning and improving little by little.

Friday, May 27, 2011

GIIS-East Coast Teen-course

It's almost a week since the last course at East Coast. That day was one of the most fulfilling days of my life. Very often it is a challenge to conduct a meditation course for young children and make it meaningful for them. And this group of students at GIIS-East Coast were Grade 9 students around the age group of 13-14years. They were in that developmental age where there would be resistance and in some cases rebellion towards adult-initiated programs. We (the school and me) even considered making it optional for the students to attend. However, the Vice-Principal of the school was firm in her commitment that young people of this age-group are clearly in need of an anchor in life and this program, she was sure, would provide such an anchor.

So we went ahead wondering how many students of the 59 on roll (26 girls and 33 boys) would actually turn up on a Saturday morning at 9am when the rest of the school was enjoying a lovely weekend. Well, they did--not all but a majority of them. There were 37 in total (so more than half turned up) 20 boys and 17 girls. That was good enough!

It is a pleasure to work with children who are motivated to do well and take things that are given to them in a positive and creative way. Right from the start I noticed that they were paying attention to instructions, and processing what was being said, and finding ways to apply it to their day-to-day lives.

In the small group discussions that I had with the youngsters they were very eager to make sure they understood correctly what was being said over the video and audio CD instructions from Goenkaji.

Questions that some of the girls asked me were: "So do you think, I should practice this before I start to study?...for how long?" "Will it help in controlling my anger?" "How?" "Oh I should really try this...I have such a bad temper"
They also wanted to know how to continue with their work when they feel so upset sometimes. I then explained that because of our increased connectivity thanks to the internet, the reactive part of the brain is very very active. We are constantly bombarded with media information and information from friends and relatives. This may give rise to a lot of emotions some of which may be very unpleasant. This constant state of arousal comes in the way of cognitive processes of the frontal-cortex which is responsible for higher order processes such as thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. A practice such as meditation is useful in calming down the reactive, emotional part of the brain (limbic system), allowing the cognitive part of the brain function more effectively.

One girl and her friend said they were taught earlier on, in their childhood, that meditation was "not to think of anything". And now we were teaching them this... to observe their breath--so they were wondering what it is all about--a bit at a loss.
So I asked her: Yes, you were told "don't think of anything"--tell me were you able to do that? Not think of anything?
She said: No it was and is difficult not to think of anything.
I said: So when you are asked to observe your breath coming in, going out are you able to do that?
She said: Yes, I am able to observe my breath
I said: Now, are you thinking of anything when you are observing you natural respiration?
She said: No I am just observing the breath
So I said:---so,what you were told as a child was not incorrect. Meditation is not thinking of anything--but its difficult to start off by not thinking of anything.Observing your respiration helps you get to the stage of cutting out your thoughts. Its a tool to help you get there.

Towards the last session when I asked a small group, how their experience was one girl said: "Amazing!" "I feel so peaceful and calm!"
Needless to say, it was a delight to be with them. They were working at it and actively trying apply it to their lives. Personally, it was one of the most fulfilling & satisfying courses I have ever conducted. And this sentiment was shared by the entire team of volunteers who were there to assist the students.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why this is not a religious practice.

After the children's course in Kuantan, I went to one of the volunteer's house as I had some time before I boarded my bus back to Singapore at 10.30pm.

After resting for a while, when I came down for dinner, I met Mr. H's (the volunteer) aunt, Cannie who lived close by and had come for dinner. When she heard that I had conducted the children's course she asked me a number of questions about it and I truly had one of the most interesting discussions with her.

Cannie had signed up for a 10day course two years ago but was not sure if she could do the course because she was unwell. The teachers conducting the course had asked to see her and she feared she would be rejected by them and abandoned the plan to sit for the course. She was however, very keen to know more information regarding the practice.

One of the questions she asked me ---Is this really a non-religious practice?
I said--Absolutely!
Elaborating further, I said that The Buddha did not teach a religion. He found out the laws pertaining to the body and mind. For instance, Newton discovered the law of gravity. This law is applicable any where and to any one. It does not mean he started a sect of people who say--yes there is a law of gravity, and it would apply to only those who believe in Newton. Nor does it make sense to pray to Newton because he made such a discovery.
Just as scientists discovered the laws of the physical world and made our lives that much more easier, The Buddha discovered the laws that govern the mind and body. And these laws are applicable to anyone living anywhere in this planet and belonging to any sect or religion.

Let's examine what The Buddha taught: The first step in this practice is Sila or the moral code:

1. Abstain from killing
2. Abstain from stealing
3. Abstain from speaking harsh words, gossiping, back biting
4. Abstain from sexual misconduct
5. Abstain from taking intoxicants

Now anyone can see that these activities that you are asked to abstain from causes a lot of misery. It causes misery to people irrespective of their religious affiliation or belief systems.
Is Sila then a religion or a part of any religion? or only pertaining to Buddhists?

Just watch what is happening around the world...the most recent news is the trouble that the IMF chief is going through. Why? Because he could not abstain from one of the above activities! Trouble is bound to follow...what has religion to do with it?

The next step is Samadhi--concentration of mind which is again universal. Why wouldn't anyone want to focus? We all know that it is the key element for success--again nothing to do with religion.
The final step--Pannya--Wisdom. Don't we revere people who are wise? Who are balanced in their day-to-day activities--not given to extreme emotions of anger, depression, anxiety, who no matter what the situation may be, can think calmly in a way that is beneficial to all. Again is this religion specific? or are only Buddhists capable of this?

The ultimate evidence of the integrity of this person, Gotama The Buddha comes from the fact that when people went to him and asked how to pay respects to him--he answered:

Namo Tassa bhagavatho, arahatho, samma-sambuddhassa

Which means: Homage to the liberated, the all-conquering, the fully self-enlightened

Did he say believe in me? or I will lead you to liberation? Is there any mention of his name even when you pay respects to him?

Sadly, most people fail to recognize this---our minds are so used to thinking in conventional ways. We find it difficult to believe that a person can actually observe the inner world objectively like a scientist observes the external world.

The Buddha said....every action has a consequence... therefore choose your actions wisely. To become wise, you need to train your mind...and this is the way you train your mind.
That is all - in a nutshell.

More conversations with children

In one of the children's courses in GIIS, a boy came up to me and said....this is quite boring! My friends and I were talking during the break and we found the speaker's voice boring and couldn't understand some of the things he said. Why do we have to do this?

This was a tough one to deal with. Looking from the boy's point of view... in a world of "cool" things, techno savvy people, glitz and glamour, listening to an elderly gentleman on a video or audio speaking about some age old practice hardly seems appealing.

However, I am convinced about Goenkaji's teaching, following his instructions have helped me, and I have experienced the truth in his words. For me it is not a blind belief or faith or reverence. Yes, he may not speak like a modern-day motivational leader. But listen to the content of what he says and it makes a lot of sense.

So I said to this boy: I see what you mean....but what I want you to do is to focus on what he has to say. You know, sometimes people may not speak in a way you like or in a "cool" way. But there might be something valuable in what they say. So can you do this exercise? When he speaks just pay attention to what he says--just follow his instructions and if you don't understand come and ask me and I will explain it to that ok with you?
He said ok and went away. I did not have a chance to have this conversation with him again, however he raised his hands to answer a couple of questions I asked when I was conducting the subsequent sessions.

Then, there was this girl who asked: How will this help me when I am studying?
I asked: When you sit down to study...your books are there with you, you are physically present--your body is there with you... but where is your mind?
She smiled a bit sheepishly and said: Oh far away!
I said: And then you hear your mom's/teacher's voice asking you to concentrate?
She said: yes..
I said: And you don't know how to do that?
She said: I try to concentrate but my mind wanders off again!

I said.: When your mind wanders away... where does it wander?
She said: Oh I may be thinking of something that my friend said in school or may be thinking of a game I played or---just thinking of different things... like when will I go to India again.

I said: If you notice what you just told me, your mind goes off into the past or the future.
She nodded her head.

I said: That is the habit pattern of the mind.. it goes off into the past or the future. So now we are training the mind to stay in one place. Tell me, can I ask you "Focus on how you breathed yesterday.. does that make sense to you?"
She said with a little laugh: No..
I said: Can I say "Focus on how you are going to breathe tomorrow?"
more laughter...: No
I said: So you see I can only ask you to observe your breath now... as it enters your nostrils and as it leaves your nostrils. The breath is in the present--that is the truth--you are alive. So focusing on the breath is being with the present moment. So next time you notice your mind wandering away, try focusing on your breath.. the mind will automatically return to the present moment.
She said: Oh! so when I am studying, when my mind wanders away, if I focus on my breath, I come back to the present and I can begin studying again! Oh! I'll do that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Reflections

The past few weeks have gone by so fast! There has been a richness of experience and fulfillment---I feel so grateful for these experiences.

My earlier blog was on the children's courses conducted in GIIS Balestier campus. Last week, I conducted Statistics examination at my University on the 10th of May and in the midst of marking papers, I also conducted 2 more courses, one each on 11th and 12th of May at the GIIS Queenstown campus for Grade 6 children. 13th and 14th were fully devoted to marking and consolidating the final results for the University.

On 14th night (Saturday) I boarded the 10pm bus to Kuantan and reached there at 4 am on the 15th. I was there to co-conduct the Tamil children's course with Mr. Santhana Gopalan. Although he asked me to conduct the course, I chose to play a supportive role instead as I felt that his Tamil was better than mine. While I do speak fluent Tamil, public speaking in Tamil still makes me nervous and I make mistakes or search for appropriate words.

Its been a very rewarding experience so far. Its interesting to interact with children of different backgrounds. It also helps me on my path, I become more clear about what I am teaching and in my expectations of the children.

Generally girls are able to sit still better than boys, though a few boys grasp the technique very well. In GIIS the children were more responsive and asked for a proper explanation on why they were asked to meditate. In Kuantan, children were in comparison more compliant, though a few of them could not sit well and were restless.

In the small group interaction in GIIS, one girl asked me---do you really think this works? Why should we be asked to meditate? What has observing the breath got to do with anything?
I asked her: Has it ever happened that your mom asked you to run an errand for her and you forgot what she said? Or you misplace somethings? She said : Yes---I always keep forgetting a lot of things.. Then I asked: What do you think happens on those occasions? She said: mind goes off somewhere else or my friend calls me out and I am busy talking to her and I forget what my mom told me.
I said: Yes, precisely, your mind goes off somewhere else and then you remember it very late and then..?
She said: I get scolded by my mom and she says I am always so forgetful!
I said: So you see what we do here in meditation, is to train your mind to stay in one place by focusing it on the breath... Ofcourse the mind wanders away sometimes, so we patiently bring it back to the breath. This constant practice helps to keep the mind more often in one place. The mind becomes more concentrated and less distracted by what others say when you are running an errand for your mom.
She said later: Oh now I get what you makes sense to me now. Thank you!

Some children do find it difficult to sit, some take time to sit well. I found that explaining to them what was happening helped them to sit better. For instance, I would explain that all our lives we are slaves to our bodies--the mind listens only to the body---the body likes/dislikes something--the mind follows it by taking an appropriate action. So now--who do you think is the master? The body! Now we are changing the habit pattern of the mind. When the body becomes restless--we ask the mind to continue watching the breath and not abandon this to listen to what the body says. So now who is in control? The mind!

This way we start strengthening the mind and since this is changing the old habit pattern it is difficult to do so at first. With practice alone, the mind becomes the master---then you begin to engage in actions that are beneficial to oneself as well as others.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Children's course in GIIS-Balestier campus

I conducted children's meditation courses in an Indian International school, Singapore on the 3rd and 4th of May. Children's courses require a number of people --volunteers to help conduct the course. While the main instructions for meditation come from our teacher Goenkaji, whose audio and video CDs are played, I monitor the process by interacting with the children to ensure they understand the instructions that are given to them.

The volunteers help register the students for the course, giving out name tags and pasting the name tags on the mats where they sit. The students are divided into groups each group with a volunteer who is called a "group leader" to lead the students in games and activities conducted in between meditation sessions.

The actual course begins with an introduction to Anapana sati ( awareness of incoming and outgoing breath around the nostrils). Before introducing them to the technique of Anapana meditation, Goenkaji instructs them on the correct posture to sit in and also the 5 precepts. Soon after this session, the children go for a break of half-an-hour.

The next session (which is the first session of the real practice of meditation)focuses on reasons why breath is chosen as an object of meditation. One very obvious reason is that because it is always there with us its easy to carry it around. Unlike a mantra or an idol, the breath is much simpler and uncomplicated object of meditation. Second reason is that it has a strong connection with the mind. It is difficult to watch the mind itself, however, if one observes the breath one gets a clue to whats going on in the mind. For instance, when one is upset, the breath loses its natural rhythm. Observing the breath restores its normal rhythm and calms the mind as well. The third reason is that it is the truth--it is not an imagination or visualization but a real phenomenon.

After the session I interact with the students asking them the reasons why the breath is chosen as an object of meditation. I also make sure they understand the correct posture to sit in (back and neck straight).

The second session of meditation deals with the difficulties experienced during meditation. Sitting for a long time in a cross-legged posture is sure to lead to difficulties of pain and restlessness. Apart from this, just observing the breath, the mind quickly wanders off into various thoughts, one after the other. Other difficulties in focusing is drowsiness and falling asleep.
The children are taught how to overcome these difficulties as they practice. An interesting explanation for restlessness is that we tend to accumulate negativities in our normal day to day lives, which lie dormant within us. When we focus on our respiration the mind for those brief moments suspends generation of negativities. These "pure" moments of focus cause disturbance in the negativities accumulated within and make us very restless. When we stay focused, the disturbance gradually subsides just as when one pours water over a raging fire to extinguish it.

Understanding the reasons for these difficulties helps us deal with them as they arise and helps to stay focused on respiration. This in turn, helps in developing moment to moment awareness of reality as it is.

The third session of meditation focuses on the importance of making right effort in order to get the results we are looking for. This includes changing some old habit patterns of the mind to roll in thoughts, by quickly correcting oneself and bringing it on course ( bringing the mind to focus on the respiration and not roll in thoughts). In short, right effort helps us focus on what has to be done in a given moment rather than engaging in automatic, wasteful ways of thinking and behaving.

In the final session, Goenkaji explains how one can continue the practice in daily life, ending the program with instructions on sending best wishes and thoughts to everyone in our lives--metta meditation. With this the program comes to an end.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Children & Teenagers' course: 6th March 2011

(The picture you see here is one of the games the children play during the break--to reinforce the idea of cooperation)

Today's meditation course for children and teenagers was interesting. The format was the same as in the courses we've had before but there were some differences. This was the first combined course for children and teenagers which means we had children as young as 6years to as old as 17 years of age. Normally, we take children of ages 8 years to 12 years into the children's course and teens from ages 13 to 18 yrs into the teenagers' course. As we had fewer children --14 in all, we decided to combine them into a single course.

Teaching young people to meditate has always be a challenging and interesting task for me. It is challenging as young people by nature are very curious and energetic and meditation requires one to sit cross legged on the cushion for quite some time. Its interesting to see them learn and benefit from the technique and the experience has enriched me as well.

I was quite relaxed today and very prepared to conduct the course. Meditation, after all is being in the present moment, and take whatever comes up with equanimity and calmness. Today I found myself more present, calm and equanimous than ever before.

There were 10 boys and 4 girls in todays' course. The boys, especially the younger ones of 8-9yrs were a bundle of energy, and found it difficult to sit still during the first part of the day. We have one introductory session (Anapana, during which they take the 5 precepts) and 3 sessions of Meditation for about 40 minutes each (with breaks of half an hour in-between sessions and an hour for lunch). The program culminates with a discourse by Goenkaji on the benefits of the practice and finally metta (loving-kindness) meditation. (Only Sila and Samadhi are taught to children & teenagers)

The youngest of the children was a girl of 6 years of age. This was her second course and as her mother who is a meditator comes in to help for the course, the girl participates in the course. Initially she found it difficult to sit still but after the first session settled down very well.
The boys were boisterous --especially two of them who were about 8 years of age.
Although the main instructions come from Goenkaji through video and audio CDs, I interact with the children to reinforce, summarize and also to make sure they have understood the technique of meditation.

Some children take to it very quickly. One boy said it was so relaxing to just sit and be aware of his respiration. Initially he had problems sitting still but settled down later, very well. The girls found the practice beneficial in taming a wild mind.

Generally children whose parents are meditators and practice at home, have lesser problems in settling down with the instructions during the course. Some other children are drawn to the course because they themselves find it useful and in turn ask their parents to go for a course.

I have always been asked how it works for children, given the procedural requirements of the tradition I follow. Many adults helping in the course have suggested that the content should be made more meaningful and interesting for children---something that they can relate to. Initially, I also was in-line with their thinking. But years of personal practice and teaching children in the strict format given to me, I feel the present framework is just fine. I feel as a Children's Course Teacher (CCT) I do have the freedom within the constraints of the course, to connect with children and make it meaningful to them.

Yes, sitting still is difficult---but that is what meditation is about isn't it? You want to tame a wild mind---a monkey mind...then you need to keep the body still and observe the mind to calm it down. How can anyone observe the mind? Well, by observing the breath....

So you see it all makes perfect sense. There is no real need to trivialize it, make it all fun and enjoyable to the extent that you lose the teaching, technique & practice itself!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

India visit-- My mother

(The picture here was taken when my mother visited us in Singapore --this is at the airport. Pavithra, my daughter is behind us)
It was lovely to meet my mother. She is about 81 years old, frail, yet with a zest for life very rare to find. Until very recently, she tutored the watchman's children ( security guard of the Apartments we live in--in India we call them "watchman"), helping them do well in the "English-medium" school they went to. Now the 3 children study in a residential school a little away from the city.

Some years ago when she was tutoring them, my sister who is an Professor of English in English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad wrote the following piece:

I overheard my mother showing the children the various rooms in our house and explaining to them what a kitchen, dining room, bedroom and drawing room were.Lucky she had our house to show them. For the children of our watchman live in a single room that serves as all these together.

The children are being sent to a modest ‘English-medium’school. My 76-year old mother, a retired teacher has taken it upon herself to help the children with their studies. She is constantly showing them objects which can only be found in a middle-class home like ours. Otherwise the English words they learn would remain only words to them without any meaning correlation, except where the words are illustrated in the books.

Without the kind of support that my mother offers, these two children would eventually drop out of school, not being able to afford tuition in addition to the school fees.

Literacy and education are important to make these children to make sense of the world around them. But along with that the anomaly of the different kinds of lifestyles stares them in the eye. What answer do we have if they turn around and ask us why their house doesn’t have so many rooms. Can it still be called a house? So do we need to add something like, ‘rich people’s houses have several rooms’, ‘the poor live in single-room houses with the toilet outside’. These children are lucky that their father is a watchman in a multi-storeyed complex which at least has this facility. To think of others who live in slums with common toilets or not even that!

I reproduce the text here, innocuous by itself. But the socio-economic complexities it throws up raked up my guilt.

Our Home

We live in a house.

It is our home.

Our house protects us from heat, cold and rain.

It also protects us from animals and thieves.

The house gives us shelter and comfort.

A house has several rooms.

The rooms have doors and windows.

We cook our food in the kitchen.

We eat our food in the dining room.

We sleep in the bedroom.

We receive guests in the drawing room.

We take bath in the bathroom.

We also store things in our house.

We keep clothes, food, books, toys, tables, chairs and cots in our house.

We should keep our house neat and clean.

This is just one example of things that perplex me about education in Indian schools. Is English language really so important to learn? Is it important to be educated in a curriculum that does not reflect the culture and society that an individual lives in?

But if these children don't go to a school, they fail to gain literacy skills. If they go to a school and don't get help from someone like my mother, they would not be able to make sense of what's going on and eventually probably drop-out.

It brings to mind Paul Willis' Learning to Labour (1977)

India visit-Part 1

(This the first part of a series of bogs I plan to write about my visit to India 29th-6th Feb 2011)

I had a week off for Chinese New Year between the 29th and 6th of February. This was the best time I thought, to visit my hometown, Hyderabad in India to spend a few days with my mother and sister who live there. My daughter Akanksha who is waiting for her 'A' level results also accompanied me.

Its a strange mixture of conflicting feelings that I experience whenever I go home to Hyderabad. I am happy to go home, but the strangeness of the city I grew up in makes me sad and happy and bewitched and angry and proud all at the same time.

We landed in the brand new Hyderabad airport at Shamshabad, at about 3.30pm. Lovely airport --didn't feel like India at all--rather, a great international airport. I was asked to come to the departure area and give a "missed call" to Hyder, our driver, who has been with my parents for the past 19 years. Giving this missed call would enable Hyder to drive into the departure area from where it was more convenient to pick us up. Hyder will never park at the parking lot because he doesn't like paying the parking fee. So he will arrive at the airport, wait at a distance from the airport and wait for our "missed call".

As we drove home to Begumpet from the airport, I thought of Thomas Hardy's book title--The Return of the Native. That title summed up what I felt. The long fly-over took us from the airport at Shamshabad to Mehdipatnam--where the college I taught Psychology for 5 years between 1990 and 1995 is located. As we passed that road, through Masab Tank and Banjara Hills to Panjaguta.....memories of years gone by flooded my mind. How many times have I driven on that route! How different that route was now! At least 2 fly-overs have sprung up, and hordes of shopping malls dot the road now making the once deserted route a hustle and bustle of activity.

We finally reached home that is located in the heart of the city, in the midst of shopping centers --Shopper's Stop, Nalli's Silk , Pantaloons and Lifestyle! My mind went back to year November 1981, when we first moved to Mayuri Apartments, Begumpet. The road would be empty with just a few vehicles passing once in 10-15mins. Now there is hardly any silence for 10-15 seconds.

It's good to see that Hyderabad has such an excellent, world class airport. It is sad to see the heavy traffic on the road with constant noise from honking vehicles---crazy, crazy traffic. It's great to see the shopping malls, indicative of economic prosperity and material progress and at the same time sad that the quietness and calmness of a city I knew is lost. It's good to see the vibrancy in the faces of people--they seem happy and excited and alive. The once sleepy Hyderabad has become crowded with people and vehicle traffic, noisy and polluted.

Ironically, in this very city, on its outskirts, began my inward journey into the depths of my mind, freeing it from many shackles and bondages, and putting me on the road to real peace and real happiness: The 10 day Vipassana course at Dhamma Khetta, Vanasathalipuram, on the Nagarjuna Sagar Road.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Being Present

"Wherever you all there" Jim Elliot

Being present is the greatest gift you can give yourself and others. And yet in this world of multi-tasking and constant connectedness with people are we really present anywhere? Most of the time we are not and this is one of the main sources of unhappiness experienced.

There have been a few people with whom I thought I had a very close relationship. However, whenever I met these people in person, I could barely hold a conversation with them. This was because they were busy doing something else--such as working on their computer or messaging on their handphones. As I thought deeply into why I seemed to think I was close to them when they were actually so non-communicative in person, I realized that the "closeness" I experienced with them was when I spoke to them on the phone or chatted with them online.

When you speak to someone on the phone your entire attention is focused on the conversation (atleast most of the time). This gives the person at the end that feeling of "exclusivity" that is needed for a relationship to grow and sustain itself. The person you are speaking to becomes an important person to whom you give your undivided attention. Every relationship requires this nurturance.

Online chats give this illusion of exclusiveness. It is an illusion because one can never be sure who exactly it is at the other end of the chat--you may be thinking it is your friend but the other could be their spouse or child or just anyone. But however, it does give that feeling of "exclusivity" that is needed in a relationship.

It is important for us to realize this when we are communicating with people. When someone speaks to us, we need to be attentive, we need to listen to what they are saying. He/she is the most important person who has called for your attention. You may want to do something else and that could be an important thing. If that is so, communicate to the individual--ask for time--that you would finish the most important, pressing commitment you have and will be engaged with the person soon after.

Giving your presence is so important in relationships--in any reciprocal relationship. A student in class with a teacher, a teacher with a student; a boss and an employee and the reverse--employee and boss, husband and wife or parent and child and also in friendships.

It all begins with an ability to connect with oneself. Connection with oneself helps us connect with others. Being present with oneself helps us in being present with others. Which is why it is so important for one to take a few minutes ( I take one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening) to be with our breath and understand and connect with our inner world. This practice helps us be present, attentive and engaged with people whom we interact with--particularly when they are physically present in front of you.

This brings about richness and satisfaction in being alive together in this wonderful world.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says this beautifully in his book " Coming to Our Senses" : Robotic Lives

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I really like this picture. It is the preaching of Anapanasati on a full moon night by Lord Buddha.
Looking at this picture brings immediate sense of calmness and peace to me. It reminds me of the triple gems, the 4 Noble truths and and 8- fold path to liberation. In fact looking at this picture, I get a sense of meaning of life and the reason why I am living it. It helps me understand my purpose and my onward journey.

What a great era it would have been during his time! Just to imagine that he taught sitting under a tree on a slightly raised platform to so many who sat cross-legged on the ground; no microphones, no chalk and board! Just practice with minimum instructions! How wonderful! So beautiful!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


It is interesting to look at the roots of a tree. The roots are so strong and are so deep in the soil. On the surface, the tree looks beautiful and gives us shelter from heat in the environment. However, the most important part of the tree is the roots by which it is supported.

Our negative emotions run just as strong and deep as these roots. These emotions have become strong and deep rooted because we have given them the nutrients for their growth--we have watered them and provided fertile soil for them to take such deep roots.

In a 10 day course we train ourselves to observe sensations that come up on our body as we sit in meditation. Observing sensations objectively, not reacting to them with craving or aversion, we learn to loosen the strong habit patterns that have taken deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. We learn to stop clinging to them, we refuse to give them water and fertile soil to grow and eventually they die.

Observing my progress on this path, I have noticed that anger, hatred and ill-will have definitely reduced. However, sadness still remains. I guess those roots are very strong and deep as well. Generally, I am a very calm person and happy as well, but occasionally I have spells which seem to throw all my learning out of the window-I become acutely unhappy, miserable and depressed. These are rare episodes but quite intense when they happen and takes everyone by surprise and also raises questions on the practice which I have faithfully followed.

Introspecting one day, I realized that just as I have cut some deep roots of habit patterns, all haven't gone yet and need more time and practice to eliminate. It is a tough tree with deep roots and the cutting has just begun!

A friend asked me what do I do when I go through those spells of misery... The first thing I do is to observe myself--how miserable I am, how helpless I am and how over powered I am by the emotion I experience. I and the emotion have become one and the same person. It is no longer "I" who is experiencing the emotion----I am the emotion. When I start observing this, the emotion I experience loses its intensity. To feel the emotion and to make it last, I need to keep feeding it in a way that it will last. When I start observing what I am thinking, feeling and experiencing on my body, objectivity comes into my thinking and I dissociate "me" from the emotion experienced.
At other times, I begin to think as I observe-- is this the mind-set I want to bequeath to the next person who is going to inherit this mind?
This helps me snap out of the miserable state I am in.

The long and regular hours of meditation practice has helped me internalize its principles fairly well--I can now quickly get to experience my inner world whenever something happens in the external environment. This helps me to be in touch with the present moment and not get carried away by the emotion experienced.

But yet... Life is difficult...the first noble truth!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Heart full of love!....

Last evening I made Veggie Kurma curry at home for dinner.
It was a tiring Friday evening and when Raja came back from work, he suggested that we go out for dinner. I was was so inclined to follow his suggestion...when after a little while I thought to myself--having done 10 days of cooking at Dhamma Malaya, and for 100 people at that, did we really have to go out and have dinner? Can I not rustle up something quickly so that all of us could enjoy a meal at home?

And that's what I did--made Veggie kurma curry -an alteration of the one I made at the center (onions and & garlic included this time) and then Jeera rice. Raja said---looks like we don't have to eat out anymore!

Yes, even to me the transformation is amazing. I always considered cooking a "chore", never excited about it and always thought I was no good at it. And now I think differently and feel differently about cooking. My heart is full of love--and I just love to cook! House-keeping, kitchen managing is not difficult anymore. I just have to set myself to it and its done quickly.

I don't know if this is only a passing feeling. I suspect it isn't. I am so glad I served this course. It taught me so much! It taught me how to delegate work, it taught me to give clear instructions: I call my daughter to help me cut vegetables, I demonstrate to her how I want it cut & for what purpose. I do it with enthusiasm and love which is infectious.

Every step on this path has taught me numerous things, expanded my horizons and made me a better person. It has taught me to love and embrace all of life. It has taught me to give unconditionally. Is this just a temporary high feeling after a 10 day course of service? Only time will tell. Well even if it is temporary and it fades, all I have to do is to serve another 10 days in the kitchen!

Dhamma works!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

10 Glorious days....Part 3

Day 4 was the day when Vipassana instructions were given to was also the day I made cabbage curry for lunch and also over slept in the afternoon.

Our day used to begin at 5 am in the kitchen. I would wake up around 4 am, and have my bath and a quick oat meal for breakfast before I began kitchen work. We would get the fruits out to wash, peel and cut; get the food for breakfast started--usually meehoon (noodles). Preparations for lunch would start right after the breakfast was sent to the dining hall. Breakfast was at 6.30 am.

Axel, Belinda and Toh Teck helped me cut 12kgs of cabbage and I got the ingredients ready to start cooking. Under my instruction Tan Abba stirred the cabbage in the huge wok. I had to do the cabbage in two batches. While we were at it, it suddenly struck me why men are considered to be good chefs the world over. Stirring food in a huge wok required lots of physical strength, and I had to rely on Tan Abba to do that for me.

Our afternoon break was between 1 to 2 with the second group sitting soon after (2--3pm). I overslept and the course manager came to wake me up and bring me to the hall!
In the evening I planned out my ingredients for the Kurma curry the next day...I peeled 10 kgs of potatoes.

Day 5, I made Veggie Kurma curry. This was with potatoes and cauliflower cooked in coconut milk and spices. It turned out great though I used the coconut milk from a carton when fresh coconut milk was available. To use up the fresh coconut milk which could turn bad with time, Richard advised that I cook the Kurma curry again on Day 7 and push the Dal scheduled for Day 7 to Day 9 ( when I had to cook Kurma again).

So when Day 7 dawned, I had my potatoes (8kgs)and cauliflower (4 kgs)steamed and ready for cooking. Suddenly at around 9 am, Richard said he was sorry but Kurma curry did not go with the other items on the menu for that day and so I should be cooking Dal instead. I hurriedly soaked 1 kg of Tuvar dal ( the only dal available in the store-room) and began preparations for cooking it.

Meanwhile, I had to find a way of consuming the potatoes and cauliflower that I had already steamed. I boiled the potatoes, till they were nice and soft, drained them and quickly gave instructions to Hue to add 1 tablespoon of salt and one tablespoon of evaporated milk powder, a dash of parsley and bingo! I had mashed potatoes in a jiffy! The steamed cauliflower were merged with broccoli with seasoning. This was really thinking on my toes ...(or should I say cooking on my toes?)

I also managed to cook the dal in time for serving....One of the Indian male students I met on the last day thanked me and said.."Jab mein ne dal ko dekha, jaan me jaan aa gaya...sochcha -chalo kam se kam aaj jee bar ke kha sakoon!" (When I saw dal, I got a life and thought atleast today I can eat well)

That afternoon was also the time I did a trial run of "kheer", Indian milk pudding. Earlier, Richard asked me if I could make that as Jayeshji asked him in the previous course why they did not have Kheer in the menu for Day 10. Kheer figures in a story narrated by Goenkaji on the last day of the course and all centers make this dish on Day 10 for lunch. I got the recipe to serve 4 people from the internet ( it wasn't in the center's recipe book)and then multiplied it to serve 20 people ( dhamma servers). This was a trial run before cooking for 100 people on Day 10.

Alice gave me a good feedback and suggested that I grind the soaked rice before adding it to milk---I did that on Day 10 and it turned out really really great!

Meanwhile there were huge human relations issues that had to be tackled. Anna was really upset on Day 6 and no matter what I did, it didn't help change her so I had to speak to the teacher (Jennifer) at night. She asked Richard to take over as Kitchen Manager with me assisting him.

Things changed quite a bit after that and I learned what it takes to be a good leader in this situation. Richard knew the kitchen inside out, he knew how to delegate, how to manage time and in short, organize the whole team. Spot on! Good learning experience for me. By the evening of Day 7 all of us could get to attend the Goenkaji's discourse.

10 Glorious days.....Part 2

Day 1 was very hectic. We had to get the breakfast and lunch going and since we only arrived on Day 0 of the course, we did not know the exact location of items in the kitchen and store-room. Fortunately, old-time meditators & servers, Richard & Mr. Gan (both from Malaysia)were at the center and they helped us quite a bit to get going.

I made Indian Dal with vegetables on the first day, following the recipe book to the letter. In addition, I managed to locate a rolling pin and atta ( wheat flour) and quickly made some chappatis for the teachers. I was sure Jayeshji would appreciate that as he was away from home for about 20 days. Indeed, he exclaimed to me that evening after metta session: " Bees din ke baad roti mila khane ko...Saadhu, Saadhu!" ( I got to eat rotis after twenty days! thank you!)

When the other dhamma servers saw me making chappatis it led to a kind of lec-dem on chappati making, with some of the servers trying their hand on it.

Anna, the other kitchen manager, took charge of the Chinese food and by the time we rolled out the lunch, it became evident to us that we need to plan for atleast a day in advance to get things done smoothly.

Alice took ill on Day 1, overwhelmed with the kind of work required to be done ---just listening to the work assigned was enough to make her ill!

Day 2 was Anna's turn to fall ill, having worked hard the previous day without resting. Kitchen work is a huge responsibility and requires hard work which can be physically tiring. Therefore it is essential that all kitchen servers rest during the scheduled 1--2pm to be fit and ready and in good health.

Three of us in the kitchen--the main cooks--Anna, Alice and myself only had experience cooking for our own families--cooking for 100 people was altogether a different experience. The rest of the helpers were all new to serving in a course. All of them, except me, had previously done 1 or 2 ten-day courses and it was their first experience in serving.

Ms. Jennifer Lin explained to me, that a long term meditator like me was essential to serve in the kitchen, because previous experiences with kitchen helpers made her realize that a calm and cool head and a person established on this path would help in maintaining harmony in the kitchen. Harmony was essential, particularly in the kitchen as when servers are happy, the work they do turns out that much better.

This was something I could do easily, and when Alice was alarmed on Day 2 when Anna was not well, I could reassure her that I was there to assist her in any way possible and things would go smoothly.

Day 2, we practically did everything ourselves with minimum help from Richard. I called for a meeting that afternoon to remind servers to take an hour's rest from 1---2pm and not over work and fall ill as we needed all of them everyday. In addition, I addressed the safety issues of keeping the floor dry to avoid accidents. Most of the jobs were allocated by the Malaysia organizing committee with the teacher, Jennifer Lin specifying my role as Kitchen Manager.

Anna returned to the kitchen in the afternoon and we started planning for Day 3. Managing kitchen involved taking stock and placing order for vegetables and other groceries; checking the items when delivered and storing the items. As Anna speaks Mandarin, only she could do this job well, and soon she was getting stressed with this as well as the cooking she was in charge of.

The others in the kitchen were one Swedish gentleman, Axel, a Spanish Tomas, Belinda, Chinese from Singapore, Rie Ishida, Japanese, Iskandar, Indonesian, Tan Abba, Chinese Malaysian, Toh Teck, Chinese Malaysian and Hue.

Axel made great salads--quite an expert at it, regaling us with interesting tales of his experiences in different cultures particularly Thai where he is currently living. Tomas helped in cutting fruits and vegetables and was also assigned the duty of carrying food for the teachers. Both Axel & Tomas helped to clean the grease trap in the kitchen sinks.

In addition to our work in the kitchen, we had 3 one hour meditation sessions in the hall with all students in the course. At night after 9pm we had a metta session with the teachers and a feedback on the progress of the day.

Day 3 went off well, though the stress began to tell on Anna and she was beginning to show signs of being upset. I tried to calm her and soothe her irritation. She felt that some of the servers were not carrying out her requests.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

10 Glorious days in Dhamma Malaya-Part 1

It feels like how Gulliver would have felt returning from Brobdingnag. 10 days in Dhamma Malaya, serving in the kitchen as Kitchen Manager and cook for Indian food, I had gotten so used to huge woks and huge pots, that returning home and to my own kitchen makes everything look so small!

What an enriching experience it was! After a lovely, hectic trip to Cambodia I was off on the 5th of January 2011 to Dhamma Malaya, Kuantan, Malaysia. We ( 2 ladies who were doing the course & I) reached the center at around 6pm. I was a little surprised when informed that my role as Dhamma server would be to manage the kitchen. I was not much of a foodie, and though I cooked frequently at home never took much interest in it compared to other women I knew. However, I had come to serve in Dhamma Malaya and was happy to do so in any capacity and was willing to take up this role.

Serving in India does not involve cooking or helping in the kitchen as centers engage paid labour for this purpose. Huge numbers throng the centers so the kitchen has to be managed by professional cooks and managers. In most other countries the kitchen is managed by old meditators who come to serve in the center. Dhamma Malaya has a fairly organized kitchen with a recipe file that include the menu for 10 days, such that anyone coming there to cook would just have to follow the instructions.

This was the second time I was serving full time outside of India. The earlier one was as course manager in Singapore. As I have been serving as Children's Course Teacher (CCT) for many years, I did not particularly go to serve in a 10 day course. However, this time when the opportunity presented itself and I had a strong volition to serve, I was glad to be there as Kitchen Manager.

The teachers for this course were Ms. Jennifer Lin, originally from Taiwan but lives in the US and Mr. Jayesh Soni, from India, who had visited my house in Singapore. This was the second course that Jayeshji was conducting in Dhamma Malaya.

In the 10 days that followed, I found myself gaining a lot of experience in leadership, human relations, planning & decision making and interpersonal communication--a truly rich & invaluable experience. I will be writing the highlights of each day separately in the next blog.