We are here to awaken...
"We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness." ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I woke up on my second full day looking forward to my first lesson again with Yogeshji. Lessons always have a way of putting things back into perspective, and they definitely did. Now I am halfway through the first leg of my stay in Mumbai, and it’s been really, really nice. Once I got over the feelings and the jet lag, I’ve fallen into a peaceful routine of solitary study, reflection, and practice. I’ve been focused on working through my lesson material and transcribing my lessons, and reading. That’s about it, and it’s been awesome. I think coming back here at this time of the year, lends itself to far less distractions. It’s not concert season, so there are less people here in general, and I don’t have four concerts a week, and I am not afraid to miss out on the experiences because I know it and I’ve done it. Now it’s just about doing what I came here to do. Although, I have still had a few minor adventures along the way.
I bought a dress for the wedding I am going to in Portugal, and as I was trying it on for the first time, ripped one of the little straps. I decided to get it tailored in Mumbai, since I knew it would be both cheaper and easier. Sometime during the week, I grabbed the dress and walked down to one of the little tailor shops I saw around my block. I stepped into the tiny shop (next to the gentlemen working fastidiously at the sewing machines) and asked to get the dress repaired. At some point, the man agreed to fix it, and climbed up a hole in the ceiling to the attic/upper room of the shop with my dress (just one of the million little things I love about being here that don’t really happen in the States - people crawling through holes in the ceilings to get to the next part of the shop). I made small talk with the guy who spoke the best English, and the two gentlemen at the sewing machines. We talked about the neighborhood and studying tabla, and generally had a great time chatting. Ten minutes later, the man climbed down through the hole with my dress, beautifully fixed. I said, “How much do I owe you?” and they said, “Nothing! You are a guest of India!” I pleaded for them to let me pay, but they insisted that I did not. I was so grateful for their kindness. I had expected the dress repair to be easier here, but not free!
It is supremely humbling to be helped so frequently and willingly here. Someone told me that it is a Hindu religious principle to treat guests as God. I looked into it a bit, and apparently there is an ancient Tamil scripture that says that the whole point of accumulating wealth and a nice home is to provide a place to host guests. That sense of hospitality is incredible. Part of the reason I love coming here is because of how connected it makes me feel to humanity. There is a warmth, between people, that doesn’t feel the same anywhere else. Despite how starkly different our backgrounds are, people want to help. People are generous, and willing to give their time and efforts. It’s wonderful, but also complicated.
I often wonder about the cultural exchange. I know that my situation would be very, very different if I were not white - no matter where I traveled. It would be more difficult. I also know that the Indian culture (generally) embraces American culture, and that often my nationality here is often an advantage, in addition to massive class privilege. On the other side of the coin, I still have a lingering fear of being seen as the “loud american,” or the ignorant white girl placing herself in a scene she doesn’t understand or belong. And then in that thought, it is hard to divide what part of that needs to be done, as a female in a male dominated field, or what part of that is perhaps in need of that caution and attention due to my whiteness. It’s definitely complicated. And I am doing my best to walk the line, and exercise caution, while simultaneously being assertive when I need to be. I don’t think anyone can ever expect to really be comfortable when it comes to navigating race and gender in 2017, but that’s also probably because we shouldn’t be. When it comes down to it, we’re all perceiving each other. It’s brief, but we all have assumptions, and hopefully many of us are working on examining them, and coming to terms with each other’s humanity.
I ran into a group of really sweet young college girls this week in Colaba. They were SO friendly! As they hopped out of the cab on the corner where I was standing, they saw me and immediately jumped into conversation asking me where I was from and how long I had been here. We ended up getting lunch together, and as we got to talking, I realized how young they were! One of them was my sister’s age (11 years younger), and the rest were early college-age. I asked them more about how they got to Mumbai - they said it was through a cultural exchange program. One of them asked me more about my perspectives and experiences on the culture and religion. They asked me about what I thought about the wide variety of religions in the area, and how those worked together. I told them my background (in short - raised Catholic, now agnostic. maybe? We’ll say spiritual, not religious) and that I thought it was great that people could respect each other’s beliefs (WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT, Y’ALL). I asked if she was religious, and she told me that they were followers of Jesus. I asked specifically what that meant, if they were non-denominational or if they belonged to a specific sect. They told me they were Baptist and Evangelical. The program that had brought them here was actually through a Baptist Evangelical organization that was a cultural exchange. I caught little glances exchanged between them as they were about to tell me. I got the idea that they were being cautious. Maybe that’s as a result of basically being on a mission trip and feeling like you need to (gently) bring up why you’re here and ask about beliefs, which is very personal. Maybe it is a result of being in a crazy, unfamiliar place and speaking out about what you believe (always nerve-wracking), but it was still a little... stifled. Regardless, good on them for learning how to navigate other cultures and religions respectfully. I told them that it was awesome. Because it is.
I think one of the biggest ways we can make positive change in the most basic sense as people is to reach out and try to understand each other. There’s SO much division, and this past year has made that alarmingly clear to me and everyone I know. Many of us hadn’t engaged, don’t engage, and that is changing. Meeting people completely different from anyone you’ve ever known, in a place you’ve never known, is important. Or at the very least, seeking to understand people who are different from you in the place you already are. We need that internal push, and we need the growth. It broadens your perspective, and I think it deepens the understanding that we’re all here, on a globe, just trying to live. One of the reasons that I never felt a religious “fit” is because it felt SO easy to slip into (not that it does every time, but I have experienced this enough to feel very effected by it) an Us v. Them mentality: believers and non-believers. Even within a community - Who is the most pious? Who was in church? Who said what? Who did what? And I know that this is not at ALL reflective of every community, but it was something that I found over and over again, and it was something that was apart of my experience that I found difficult to accept. An exchange - the meeting and exploring and seeking understanding, the recognizing of each other’s humanity, it what it is about. It’s people meeting people and sharing and respecting each other’s differences. It's everything.
My dad recently told my sister that he doesn’t control anyone’s relationship with God, including hers. I really loved that acknowledgement. I think it is something my Dad has had to come to terms with due to his … uhm… divergent and colorful? children… but I think that both him and my mom do it so gracefully. I know how lucky I am to have parents who take our differences and ideas and thoughts and opinions and are willing to grow with us. They are so respectful of the processes any of us are going through, and it’s really amazing to be impressed by their willingness to really hear us and let us grow into who we are. I know they struggle with it sometimes, but they ask, and they listen, and they always try to understand. And as human beings on the planet, I think that’s what we are called to do: listen and try to understand.