At the start of September I left the San Francisco Bay Area for India. For the past four months I have been living and teaching with a U.S. university program in Auroville – a town in south India "dedicated to human unity." In brief, I loved working with the students this past semester, and I am staying in Asia for at least a couple more months of teaching, meditation, yoga, and travel. I have deep gratitude for the gifts and lessons of India, of Auroville, and of teaching.
Read on for more detail and photos, which you can click on to enlarge (thanks to Katie, Ciara, and Abigail for sharing these photos from our journey – my camera stopped working in October). Enjoy!
Until about a week ago, the main focus of my life in India was to serve as faculty for, and live in community with, a group of U.S. college students studying in Auroville for the semester. The program is one of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst accredited, ecovillage-based college education programs of Living Routes, the organization I also worked with when I was living in the Findhorn Community in Scotland from 2003 to 2005. I come away from the semester understanding what a friend once said about being honored to have the opportunity to teach.
I am inspired by the vision of the Living Routes program, and I so enjoy how Abigail (my co-faculty and friend) and I shaped and shared the learning experiences with the students. Within a curriculum centered on the three interwoven themes of sustainability, community, and consciousness, the students experienced a blend of traditional academic content, active experiential learning, critical reflection, and personal mentoring. I celebrate how this integral approach aspires to support the development of the students as whole people – mind, heart, body, and spirit – as well as inspiring and empowering them to take action on behalf of humanity and all life on Earth.
We began each day with early morning yoga and meditation practice. After breakfast of porridge and bananas, or muesli with curd, most mornings students went off on self-selected service projects, where they learned from hands-on work at sites such as a permaculture garden project, a village outreach education center, and an organic farm. In the afternoons we had more formal learning sessions, exploring a range of subjects relating to how humanity can live more consciously and sustainably on the Earth, including Integral Theory, the Universe Story, Nonviolent Communication, and the Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer symposium, and much more. In addition, through weekly student-run community gatherings and consensus-based community meetings, we co-created a learning community, and I found myself continually inspired by the wisdom and compassion of how the students engaged with each other.
The curriculum included both conventional educational means such as reading books and writing papers, as well as encouraging many other forms of learning and self-expression. Students kept rich written and visual journals of their learning, took turns facilitating the learning community, and designed their own semester learning plans. At mid-semester we traveled to the ancient and boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi, India, where students completed a 3-day sacred solo and vision fast, each in their own cave. For one of their final projects, each student designed a proposal for their own “integral sustainability project” which they will implement when they get back home – from creating a sustainability-themed student housing cooperative at their university, to starting a summer community garden camp at an inner city school.
I come away from the semester feeling deeply grateful. I am grateful to be a part of education that blends personal transformation and service to the planet. I am grateful for ways of learning that honor our hearts and bodies as well as our minds, and that remind us that all life is inter-connected. And I am grateful for students whom I am honored to consider friends.
Home for the past few months has been Auroville, a "universal city in the making" that is laid out in a giant galaxy-shaped spiral design. Founded in 1968, Auroville was inspired by the vision of 20th century spiritual teachers Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa.
One of the things I most appreciate about Auroville is the beauty, generosity, and scope of its vision. It's exciting to imagine the day when all communities and people share similar aspirations: "Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." While it may not yet have fully realized its utopian ideal, Auroville is a fascinating and unique experiment. Nowhere else have I found such a diversity of humanity, and of experiments in sustainable living.
Here are some verbal snapshots of Auroville. Imagine a place where 40 years ago there was a barren treeless plateau of hard baked red earth, which through the painstaking planting of thousands of trees by the first Aurovillian settlers, has been transformed into a town covered in a native tropical evergreen forest. Ride a bicycle along a red dirt road and notice an electric moped silently pass you, before the next noisy wave of motorcycles. Visit the American Pavilion, the innovative dormitory in Auroville’s International Zone where some of the students and I lived, with solar power, rainwater collection, and compost toilets, as well as a giant lotus pond with a chorus of frogs. Cycle on to Auroville's epicenter, to the sprawling banyan tree and the giant, golden-domed Matrimandir, a meditation chamber dedicated to the evolution of human consciousness. For lunch, head to the “Solar Kitchen,” which feeds 2,000 people each day with meals cooked by heat collected from a giant sun dish on the roof. For some post-lunch indulgence, head up the spiral staircase to "La Terrace," where you sip cappuccino and eat chocolate tarts under the shade of palm trees, listening to surrounding conversations in Italian, Hebrew, and Tamil. Strike up a conversation with an Aurovillian, who tells you he used to be an IBM engineer, and how in Auroville no one owns the land they live on, because Auroville belongs to all of humanity.
There is so much one could say about this nation of over a billion people, of both crippling poverty and ultra high tech industry, and of profound and ancient spirituality. The sometimes perplexing tensions of this country create a place in which I can't help but let go of certain attachments, and reflect on what truly has meaning in life.
Like many Westerners who come here, I am fascinated by the spiritual dimensions of India. This land gave birth to yoga, to Hinduism and Jainism, and to Buddha and Gandhi. You can hardly turn a corner without finding a neon-bright temple to the elephant-headed Ganesh, a yoga ashram, or an ochre-clad and bearded sadhu who has renounced his worldly posessions. Here, it is commonplace for retiring businessmen to undertake extended spiritual pilgrimages. Even the national newspaper has a prominent daily column of spiritual teachings. What strikes me most is how omni-present and inclusive spirituality is here – people here say "How can you not be spiritual? What isn't spirit?"
At the same time, there is the paradox of a land of spirituality where the wealth gap is vast and growing, where you read more than one news story about someone lighting their maid on fire with burning oil because she didn't do her work well, and where you hear regularly of women being beaten by their husbands. Here too reality is filled with complexity.
My attention has been captured by a variety of other aspects of Indian culture as well. Despite eating South Indian food nearly every day my delight has not dimmed at all, and I have become particularly fond of dosai (fermented rice and lentil crepes) and having a thali meal (a rice meal with a variety of vegetable and curry dishes, traditionally served on a giant banana leaf). I have also experimented with the ancient Siddha medical tradition of India, realizing, for example, that the leaves and branches of the neem trees which pepper the landscape are a virtual pharmacy, and can be used to stop infections and fungus, to brush your teeth, to boost your immune system, and much more.
Finally, there are a number of aspects of life in India which stand out in their intensity. The climate is one, from the clothes-drenching heat and humidity of much of the year, to the torrential downpour and flooding of the monsoon rains. Equally impressive is the pervasive presence of non-human animals: the black “lobster” scorpions you check your shoes for; the lizards catching their dinner of flying insects by the bathroom light; the chorus of birds ricocheting in the early morning; the packs of easily provoked village dogs; ants and termites constantly exploring your clothes, computer, and bed; and the poisonous viper or cobra you hope to see but not get bitten by. Last but not least, there is the awe-inspiring chaos of Indian traffic: the roar of honking and beeping trucks, buses, cars, rickshaws, and motorcycles; the five member families perched delicately on a moped flying down the road; the cows and dogs wandering into the street; and the scarcity of road signs. All of this provides an excellent environment within which to cultivate inner peace.
So, what am I up to next? I'm staying in India for at least another couple of months. In the first couple of weeks of January I am leading a series of Nonviolent Communication workshops in Auroville, as well as co-facilitating the Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer symposium. In late January I am headed to a Buddhist sesshin – a silent meditation retreat – at Bodhi Zendo in Kodaikanal, and in February I am going to a Sivananda Yoga ashram in Kerela for a month-long yoga teacher training course. There are some other interesting possibilities of going to Sri Lanka and New Zealand coming up also, but for now that's what I have planned out.
Thank you for your care in taking time to read about what has been happening in my life. I'd be very glad to read your responses and to hear anything you'd like to share from your life. May we all find joy and peace in our lives, and find ways to share these gifts with others!