We left Anandwan over a fortnight ago and now, with time and distance under our belts, it is time to reflect on the time there and our transition back into everyday India.
For 5-weeks we lived a very institutionalised existence. There was a near monastic feel to it too with bells chiming for meditation practice, silent times and Dharma talks. Throw the work times, meal times, group activities, yoga, sharing, etc,. into the mix and you have quite a schedule. Kate and I took ourselves off and away from it all at regular intervals in the form of glorious early morning walks and post-prandial strolls. This was not an anti-social act on our part but constituted very special time for us to just be together and feedback to each other as to how we were getting on in our work roles, with the group and with ourselves. We tried to be as non-judgemental,candid and empathetic as possible whilst also avoiding gossip or any confidences that had been shared.
But the group were a good bunch in the round with no one person being wholly objectionable or disruptive. A good job too as we were all living cheek-by-jowl in a block with 3 or 4 to a room and a large shared bathroom area. There were ex-corporate types, a writer, a doctor, a physio, political activists, serial retreaters, IT engineers, a variety of questioning and slightly confused 30-somethings and one delightful 72-year old former schoolteacher. And us of course. Almost everyone had something to bring to the ‘baggage’ table – some far more than others. Group sharing sessions could be very mixed affairs and it soon became apparent that there was as much joy and suffering in our little group as there was in the community. I heard some very sad things whilst in our sharing sessions: moments where the air seemed to suck out of the room and a tangible hush descended. These were not painful things to hear as a listener but more an opportunity to develop one’s compassionate response to the issues in question. There were those for whom I felt being on a meditation retreat was possibly not the best choice. This was exemplified by a remark made by one of the group “If I can’t think what to do with myself I can always go on another retreat”. To which a possible answer might be that you can run away all you like but you can’t run away from yourself. But who am I to judge what is right or wrong for another person.
So there we were, a community within a community, but each from as different a side of the track as it is possible to be. One hugely privileged, modernised and living in regions of liberalised democracy: the other total outcastes in a country noted for appalling poverty, a rigid caste system and negligible opportunity for those afflicted by serious disease or disability. How did we all rub along together? From our very first hours there we were welcomed with such genuine warmth, this increasing daily as we began to be more involved with the community through our various work roles. As days turned into weeks we began to learn names and know what people did, their stories and how they came to be there. All this made for a very positive atmosphere, quite unlike any that I had felt before in India. To say we felt like we belonged would perhaps be putting it too strongly but there was a very real sense of being a part of it – even if that was constrained by time. If any one thing created a barrier to deepening our understanding and immersion in the lives of the community members it was the lack of language skills. But we all attended the Hindi class and muddled along in a way that provided much amusement to the young and old (and is now proving very useful out on the road).
It was fascinating to watch everyone in the group eventually find their feet, not just amongst ourselves but within the Anandwan community. Some suffered terrible rejection or frustration at first whilst others slipped into their work roles effortlessly. The work did take me up to some edges but to be completely frank nothing that truly shook me or taxed me unduly. That is not a smug or complacent statement when set against others travails just a reflection that for me it was something that I felt fully able to deal with and to also help those less able to cope. I certainly saw some shocking things but they were more than compensated for by the positives we all experienced in so many ways every day: especially memorable was the joy on the face of a man watching the leaves rustle in the wind after removing his dark glasses following surgery to cure 9-years of suffering with double cataracts.
Did I enjoy it? The short answer is yes. If someone had asked me prior to the retreat if I truly knew how to sit quietly with myself I would have given a resounding affirmative to the question. Now I know that I was misplaced in that response and that I have now gone a little way towards correcting the error. On a personal level I felt that sitting in a hushed room for hours a day was not going to get me too much further along the path. I enjoyed it and will do short bursts of meditation again but I discovered that I am more of an ad hoc contemplator, finding my moments when a period of down times arises or there is a general lull in proceedings. To finish with a quote from the always excellent Montaigne: “We need to be among the living and just let the stream flow under the bridge without worrying too much about it”. That will do for me.
(Watching the leaves blow after 9-years in the darkness)