As best as I can surmise, today’s twenty minute stint was perhaps my shortest weekly walk on the trail in quite a while. The weather front was turning rain to sleet, which meant that it was cold, blustery, pellets were coming at me sideways from all directions and it was as grey and foreboding feeling as winter can be imagined.
And yet I wasn’t deterred because it is these weekly walks that have become my inspiration for the ideas that turn into the weekly blog post which I often write after the walk. The clarity, lightness and simplicity that flow from walking in solitude and observing the dynamics of flora and fauna creates a portal through which the thoughts flow into words on the page.
At the start of today’s walk, I set the intention to invite feelings and memories related to ‘service’ into the heart. Swami Vivekananda talked about the notion of ‘service as duty’ and how we often engage in service as a means to fulfill our sense of duty. In 12th grade, we actually had a ‘subject’ called SUPW — socially useful productive work — which was on the schedule for one hour a week. As a teenager, I used to often scoff at the idea that one could do any meaningful ‘service’ in one hour a week. As is often the case, I was wrong. It was during SUPW that I discovered the work of organizations like UNICEF, and gained some awareness of how privileged my life was as compared to millions of children around the world.
As I walked the trail around the pond on the soggy grass, skirting temporary lakelets created by yesterday’s heavy rains, I remembered my ‘service’ projects in engineering school. The Saturday morning hours set aside to meet the requirements of volunteer hours for the National Service Scheme (NSS) brought familiarity with the Red Cross, learning about blood donations and such. However, the sense of ‘service as duty’ remained.
It wasn’t until my visit to a ‘nursing home for disabled children’ on an NSS Saturday that my heart towards service finally shifted. The hands-on and heart-filling experiences of seeing, listening, simply sitting and walking with those with life-long impairments, mostly children of my age and below, was transformational. The heart-shift meant that I couldn’t wait for Saturday mornings to arrive so that I could go visit the home and spend time with those that I had formed mini-friendships with. Service transformed from a sense of ‘duty’ to a sense of ‘doing good’ — over time, the one benefiting most from the ‘goodness’ was actually me.
At the halfway mark on the trail, where the wind had died down because the path was flanked by thickets of trees, I took a pause and reflected on my experiences with service through SUPW and the NSS. It is said that there are no small acts of kindness, and I am convinced that it was those small acts of giving that opened my heart and mind to the power of small acts of service. To paraphrase Swami Vivekananda, the world doesn’t need our help — we need the world in order to exercise our ability to serve. Our heart needs the world, so that it can feel the joy of serving and eventually arrive at a state where we feel that service becomes a privilege, not mere duty.
It is said that in the midst of our serving, when our heart is fully immersed, we become observers of the One who is truly serving and the One who is truly being served. Service thus becomes the unifier of people.
We realize that the day’s walk is over, the storm has becalmed us and it is time to return home to warm up with a cup of green tea and share our heart of service with the world.
Thank you for serving. Namaste.
P.S. Join us for our weekly twitter chat with the #SpiritChat community on Sunday, Jan 15 at 9amET / 2pmGMT. We will pause to remember Martin Luther King, Jr and discuss the topic of ‘heart of service’. Namaste – @AjmaniK
The tears came suddenly and as large droplets from my firmly shut and already moist eyes at the end of the morning meditation session; about midway through I had ceded any semblance of trying to get my mind’s thought pattern to calm down as the thoughts had somehow drifted to thinking about privilege by birth, and how much of it I enjoyed growing up in a middle class family in India.
The tears came as I thought of the one who probably saved my life when I was ten, as I lay bleeding and unconscious on a concrete floor, having fallen from about 20 feet high onto my left side from the first floor window. I had broken the raised bone in my left arm where it meets the wrist and bridge of my plastic glasses had embedded into my nose on impact, which was miraculously not broken, but was bleeding like the river Yamuna. She was the only adult in the house with all of us kids — the very dark-skinned South-Indian lady named Chalma who would wash dishes twice a day for three families of at least eight to ten people each who lives in a three-story home in a wealthy New Delhi neighborhood.
Her tools were used lemon rinds, and wood ashes that she brought from the remnants of the cooking fires from her home, and the husks of used coconuts that she used as a cleaning ‘sponge’. The family sized pots and pans of cast iron and copper were heavy; plates, spoons, glasses, knives were all stainless steel. One eight foot section of the granite kitchen counter top would be filled with the washed dishes after she was done. She wasn’t allowed to stand and wash in the marble sink next to the counter because the ashes would cause damage to the fine surface.
So, on the floor she sat cross legged on a small flat stool, with her frail frame bent over her kingdom of dirty dishes, coconut fiber in one hand, dipping it ever so often in the ashes sitting in an earthen bowl by her. In the morning, she did the dishes from last nights dinner. In the afternoon, she did the dishes from breakfast and lunch. Once or twice every day, she was chided by the lady of the home, not to let the tap of fresh water run so freely. Her job was particularly difficult in the summer when running water only came for an hour, twice a day — during the early hours of the morning and the late afternoon. If she missed that running water window because she was ‘late to work’, she would have to use water that we would have filled in heavy aluminum buckets the night before, and lined her workspace with in a quarter circle — water that she would treat like molten gold as she used it sparingly, and wash out thoroughly for the next day, after she had washed all the dishes…
And then there was the lady who would come and sweep all the finely crafted and smoothed concrete floors of our family’s 1500 sq ft home on the middle floor of the three story home. The ‘dry sweeping’ with the traditional broom was the relatively easy part. What was much tougher was the mopping that followed. It was done with a heavy cotton-roped cloth about two feet square, sitting on her haunches as she dipped the cloth with her bare hands in the water doused with phenylaline as a disinfectant, moving slowly, a few square feet at a time.
Her task was to remove the dust that is endemic in the oppressive summer heat of Delhi when the hot breeze called loo from neighboring Rajasthan brings hot sand with it and coats everything in its path — whether it be a shining, three story home in a wealthy neighborhood or the ramshackle tenement of the dish-washing lady who tries to feed her family every night with just enough money earned by washing dishes all day so that she can buy just enough wheat or rice filled with stones and dirt from the ration shop every week or so.
I have to admit that while all this was happening around me in middle-school, high-school and under-grad, I didn’t think about it much because it was considered “normal” for most middle-class families to employ multiple, task-specific maids. The maids and their families needed to work to live, and we were supposedly providing work, wages, an occasional cup of tea when they were done working — even a saree or some clothes for the kids on major holidays. It was a sort of unwritten societal labor contract — it was also a social network of ladies of the homes and the maids who worked through multiple homes every day.
For some reason, lately, I’ve been made aware of the privilege enjoyed by me in that contract, in painstaking detail. For me, the way out of that contract happened to be in coming to the USA for graduate studies. For them, the only way out of that contract, was perhaps death. For death does finally destroy all privilege accorded by birth, or does it?
I do remember talking to a teenage son of one particular lady who used to do the daily trash pickup and clean the bathrooms — the dish washing lady, the floor cleaning lady, laundry washing and clothes ironing lady, and bathroom washing lady were all separate — if he had ever considered going to school. I don’t know that he ever answered me directly except by saying with his brilliant smile and impish grin with slightly downcast eyes — bhaiya (brother), this is my life, and I am happy doing the work given me.
So, that is why all the tears came. His statement, which I never forgot, was such a simple reminder that “it isn’t the task that makes the person high or low — it is the manner in which it is done, that makes the person so.” The tears also served as a reminder of what I have read so often in two of my favorite essays delivered in London in 1896 — “Vedanta and Privilege”, and “Privilege” — both by Swami Vivekananda.
A quick recap may be useful. The Advaita (Oneness) philosophy of Vedanta says that for Oneness to be our truth, one needs to believe in Universal equality, in the fact that we are all manifestation of the One divine. Without that central belief and practice, our inner world is fragmented and we dwell in anger, hate, jealousy and all that which divides us. If we hold that central belief that we all have the same One light of higher embodiment, our inner world is united through an ever-flowing current of higher love.
So, what is it that destroys Oneness, ethics and equality?
“Everyone is the embodiment of Knowledge, of eternal Bliss, and eternal Existence.
The ethical effect is just the same, with regard to equality.
And yet, there is privilege – the bane of human existence. The privilege of the strong over the weak, of the wealthy over the poor, the subtle privilege of those who claim higher intellect, and the worst of all, because it is the most tyrannical, is the privilege of (birth and) spirituality – those who think of themselves as more (due to birth), or those who think they know more of spirituality (than others).” – Vivekananda
And so arise the questions in my heart-mind complex. What privilege(s) do I assert? Which privilege(s) have I inherited? What privilege(s) am I passing on in my legacy? How does privilege manifest in my actions and practices, my goals, my dreams and my aspirations? And perhaps most importantly, how do I break down the bondage of all these privileges that entangle me in the web woven by all my desires?
I don’t know. Perhaps I can begin by washing my own dishes, keeping my personal (office) space clean, and maybe doing (or at least folding) my own laundry. Or all of the above…
P.S. Join our weekly chat, Sunday June 14 at 9amET/ 630pm India in #SpiritChat on Twitter. All are welcome. No privilege necessary to attend, to share some love with all. I will bring some questions, some tea and cookies to share, for that is the small loving privilege granted me by the community for that hour. Namaste – @AjmaniK
In order to understand the idea of inequality, we may be well served by first defining ‘equality’. Simply stated, equality is the state of being equal in status, rights and opportunity. It is often associated with fairness, equity, impartiality and justice. It is apparent that equality and its associated traits and virtues are wonderful, if not essential, for humans, communities and societies to practice and embed in their lifestyle.
And yet, equality is a fleeting thing at best. If we look at nature, inequality seems to be everywhere. The robin lays a lot of eggs, but not each one of them hatches. Among the ones that do hatch, not every fledgeling is equally healthy. Some flowers bloom more beautifully than others, even though they may grow on the same branch, and tree. In fact, flowers on the same branch often compete with each other for sunlight. Nature is full of examples of inequality, both in flora and fauna.
Two instances when nature may come close to exhibiting equity is at the moment of the equinoxes. Every spring and autumn, at a given hour of a given day, the sun crossess the celestial equator. We observe, even celebrate these days as those of equal sunlight and darkness. It is only on n these two days of equinox that nature’s law seems to benedict equality upon her two hemispheres. On every other given day of the year, inequality of light and darkness is the natural law. And we humans, along with the flora and fauna that we live amongst, have learnt to thrive in this inequality of nature!
Similar to the two days of the equinoxes, there are perhaps two other instances in which equality is the natural law. Is it in the two instances of our birth and our death that we are equal in nature’s eyes? Is it not that the beggar and the king are ‘equal’ in birth and, particularly, death? Every living moment between those two moments has the potential to subject our lives too inequality. We might as well adapt, change, learn to live our lives well, swim and thrive in this sea of inequality, yes? Make no mistake. This isn’t a call to surrender and accept unfairness, inequity and injustice. We may have bigger battles at hand.
Our battle is for the abolition of the use and abuse of privilege. Our battle is against those who would use privilege to keep us from the opportunity to strive for natural justice. Equity, ethics, empathy and equality are all part of our core spiritual existence and heritage. Our battle against privilege will return us to our core values and existence, to equality through Oneness.
What can inequality create? Thirty three years ago this month, a young boy left behind everyone that he had known, spent the better part of twenty four hours migrating across the oceans to the unknown. With suns, moons and stars guiding his eyes, he traveled to a land which held out the promise of equal opportunity. A lot of equinoxes have since been celebrated by him in his adopted land. The boy has grown, but the dream has not yet gone.
The dream has in fact been transformed into a practice that his heritage has long known: “to arise, awake, keep aloft the banner of love, and to stop not until the goal is reached!”
P.S. What’s your story of adapting to inequality, of celebrating equinoxes, of battling privilege? I invite you to share with the #SpiritChat community, Sunday September 22 at 9amET on twitter. Namaste – @AjmaniK
The idea of giving and receiving really does not need to know any season. However, the first inescapbale fact is that the ‘holiday season’ which dawns upon us in different parts of the world tends to shift our focus to giving and receiving, and many other nuances that are connected with them. The second fact is that many of us find it much, much easier to give than to receive. I have many past #SpiritChat transcripts as lasting proof of this fact. A related fact, which is connected to the first two, is that we associate kindness, kind-heartedness, and spiritual expansion with giving to others, and the scales are heavily weighted against receiving.
But the fact of the matter is that, in most cases, we have been inadvertently receiving more than we have been giving, for most of our lives. Once we cast the nets of our senses and our minds a bit wider than our immediate surroundings, we will know this to be true. From the moment we started growing in our mother’s wombs, we became receivers of nourishment. And when we leave our physical frame and transition to the next phase, we will be receivers of the grace of those who will facilitate that transition for us. It is in the interim, when our awareness grows in the fact that most of our immediate needs have been met, that we find ourselves in a position to “give”, and perhaps even ‘help’ others with our giving.
In higher awareness, the seed-idea of ‘giving is good’ finds root in our heartspace. Once we make ‘giving’ a regular practice – whether it be giving of material things, giving of our time and attention, giving of a genuine smile, buying that cup of coffee for that stranger in the car behind us at the drive through window – we find joy and fulfillment in giving. We find a little bit of enhanced purpose, even if it be for a brief fleeting moment, when we realize that we have made someone’s day a little bit better. We add one more thread to the fabric of our life and theirs, when we practice giving. The open circle of receiving wraps its arms around itself with the open circle of giving, and we find ourselves in an infinite loop of privilege…
Why privilege? Consider the obvious. If there were no receiver, the giver and their giving would be bereft of joy, purpose, and the sense of sharing. So, yes, it is indeed the giver who is privileged that the receiver actually exists. As Vivekananda has pointed out in one of his essays, “it is the privilege of the servers that they are able to serve…” – so, the givers should be grateful, and give thanks that they can share of what they have received. One corollary is that the receiver ought to partake of the joy of the giver, and give the giver the opportunity to exercise their spiritual need to experience their infinite nature in the act of giving…
For those of us who have children or are around children, we may be familiar with the joy that we get from giving them the best of everything that is possible. For those of us who have grandchildren, I am told that this joy is multiplied many fold. So, as children of That divine, let us make our list, check it twice, and rejoice in receiving the best from the greatest giver of all. In that giving and receiving, we have the priviliege and the opportunity to find the infinite expression of our spiritual nature…
My sincere thanks to you, for reading and receiving ~ I invite you to give back with your thoughts ~ Join us Sunday, November 29th 2015 at 9amET on twitter, as we disccus Giving and Privilege.