29 March 2020

Andrew Melville: India’s Blissful River of Life

Anyone who has visited India or South East Asia will know the stark contrast in the way road traffic works. For some it is a horror, for others an adventure.

For me it is the perfect metaphor for my time in India. You simply launch yourself into a river of life, a river of traffic, come what may. At times it can seem chaotic and highly dangerous as you join the flow, often from the wrong side of the road and straight into oncoming traffic, creating your own lane, honking loudly until you find a space, dissecting, intersecting, and at times actually colliding. Life and traffic continues to flow, sometimes stop-start, sometimes frenetic, sometimes somnambulic, and sometimes life ends, well actually life always ends. So do pardon me for getting a little philosophic, I think India does that to you.

Bangalore, or more recently Bengaluru, has an airport that stacks up with any modern airport in the world; a testament to the rising middle class of India and the city’s booming times as a huge global centre for the IT and Tech sector – India’s Silicon Valley.

After visiting a stall in the terminal to buy a SIM card ($20 for a month of seemingly unlimited data) we headed out of the terminal through a cute series of ‘village’ eateries to an Uber ‘boulevard’, a great avenue for Ubers of every shape and size. We grab a medium-sized, medium-priced one, and launch into Bangalore traffic. Our driver honks incessantly and weaves his way. Vehicles come so so close to each other, so very different from New Zealand, America or Europe. But it always seems to work out. But not this time. We collide side to side with a truck. The bump was not severe, more a scraping alongside each other. But enough to cause some damage.

Then for the best part of two hours, a cat and mouse chase went on with half a dozen roadside stops with negotiations between Uber Driver and Truck Driver around a ‘settlement’ for the collision. Many phone calls later (often while driving and not hands-free), it remained unresolved. We ended up on the side of a highway, stalemate. Our driver said the ‘stupid fellow’ was offering 500 rupees for the damage, about $10. The driver wanted 4 x this, still seemingly a tiny amount for a panel-beating job. I guess he had a mate somewhere who could do it on the side of the road, for we did see many roadside repair shops in sheds. Exhausted after our flight, we had enough of the endless negotiations, and offered 1000 rupees to settle the dispute get ourselves to our destination. It worked, and we set off.

When we finally arrived at the Art of Living campus, we learnt that we had touched down from our flight at the tail end of an eclipse. During an eclipse in India, everyone stays inside as it is believed to be a time when you are susceptible to accidents. And so, well there you are. If we had known…

The Art of Living campus, or Ashram, is a beautiful lush place full of coconut palms, flowers and lush tropical vegetation. Twenty or so years ago it was bare dirt. Its vision, its key activity, its purpose and its essence is solely about love. Everything is centred around this, around achieving an inner happiness, through breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, and an Ayurvedic diet. It is all drawn from ancient practices, hundreds of years old.

The founder is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is in the truest and purest sense, a guru. And the real translation of guru is nothing to do with being a God, a deity, or a chief, it is about being a reflection of our own selves in our purest sense. It is a concept that is very difficult to comprehend from a Western mindset and goodness knows we have, often for good reason become quite cynical about the concept of Indian gurus in flowing white robes. I know I certainly did not take the idea very seriously.

I have spent years trying to figure this out, and have finally come to a place of peace with it. Quite simply, we just simply don’t realise the limitations of a Western worldview, based on intellect, analysis, trying to nail the tangible things of life, and dismissing anything that cannot be proven with hard, physical evidence.

The irony is that the benefits of the practices of the Art of Living are full of physical evidence, of individuals who have transformed their mental, or physical or spiritual wellbeing… as well as many peer-reviewed academic studies and journal articles about the benefits.

But still we remain sceptical…about those things that we cannot see, cannot frame intellectually. And to consider a human being as a guru, imbued with values and abilities that transcend the perceived capabilities of a human being, is for so many difficult to grasp.

In our histories, whatever the religion or belief, there have been saint-like figures. And yet today, we don’t seem to have many about that we feel we can trust. For sure, across the religions there has been widespread abuse of power. But, at the risk of sounding like a ‘converted’ person, after spending time at the Art of Living ashram, I have started to comprehend what a movement founded by an individual you could call a living saint, a guru, or a master, looks like. I have looked for flaws, for deception, for corruption, for manipulation, for abuse, but have not found any, and so my trust is high. And it is very loving, peaceful, enriching and actually magical. For wonderful synchronicities come into play when you are open to possibilities unconstrained by the mind and the intellect.

I was at the ashram to complete training as an Art of Living teacher. The criteria to enter the programme is quite rigorous, and it takes several years of commitment including a daily breath, yoga, and medication practice. It has been my great joy to have not missed a day of this practice for the past 18 months, that in itself is a huge thing for my creative, easily distracted and undisciplined self. Routine and discipline has been my enemy for most of my life, I held it as the opposite of freedom. I hard-wired myself to deeply dislike repetition or doing anything at all the same way more than once.

The training to be an Art of Living teacher is hard to put into words. It is a beautiful and challenging experience, testing all the traditions of a Western education. The foundation was full days of breathing, yoga and meditation, coupled with knowledge sessions. All are inextricably linked. The practices of the breath, the yoga and the meditation are the foundation for learning, sharpening our intellect, our comprehension and our connectedness. It is remarkable how open our intellect is to learning when we lay down a strong foundation of physically- and mentally-balancing exercise and meditation.

It is like a science of love, intuition and connection; all areas that my Pākēhā background held as unconnected. Anything related to the spirit was very formal and confined to Sundays at church and some haphazard morals for living. Anything related to the mind was learnt by rote and memory, completely divorced from any form of spirituality. And the physical was in another compartment, in sport, exercise, with set parameters, set times on fields or in gyms, sometimes in work.

Now to be fair, there is a greater interest today in the crossovers of mind, body and spirit. We talk about mindset a great deal and increasingly acknowledge the intangible contributors to our achievements, both mentally and physically. But there is still a way to go. And still a way to go when it comes to the ‘L word’ being practised and embraced unconditionally. Love. We still don’t do love well.

The most beautiful thing about the Art of Living ashram is that it is saturated in love. You feel it an every turn. There is no anger. There is no alcohol. There is no meat. There is no lust. The only seduction is of a universal love. It really is too good to be true, a heaven on earth, a garden of Eden. But it is real, and people do get grumpy, have bad days, get sick, and generally live through good and bad, dark and light as anyone anywhere does.

There is an immense sense of freedom to be in a place free of judgement. It is remarkable to be in a place where you can trust everyone you meet, not needing to double-guess another’s intention. For sure there are some rules and guidelines as there must be with thousands of people living, working, meditating, and reflecting together. But in the presence of divine love and the absence of judgement, you can be very direct.

There were 700 people on our course. The logistics of that number together in a room, moving around venues, being fed, participating, learning, interacting and getting stuff done is phenomenal. India is fascinating for this, for through what often appears as chaos, great order and progress is achieved. And it is quite something else to sit in a hall of 700 people meditating and practising yoga – there is a palpable connected energy.

To get things done, we were divided into ‘batches’, and yes it did make me feel like a scone! The Indian use of English is quite hardcase a lot of the time. Our batch was the international group, 80+ of us, and the rest of the 700 were from all across India. Our international batch was taken from 22 countries: from Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, Taiwan, Mozambique, Gabon, Mongolia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Vietnam, Nepal and many more.

For me, the measure of something good for humanity is how many cultures it can cross over. Anything with a real universal appeal captures my attention, for it seems that something that has such widespread appeal, has some deep fundamental human truths at its core. And this is what happens with the Art of Living.

Its followers, devotees, adherents, participants, supporters come from all corners of the globe. They are deeply diverse, not simply in ethnic cultures, but multiple walks of life.

On reflection when back in Aotearoa, I realise that the experience was an insight into some ancient, many thousands of years old, ways of teaching. We integrated yoga, meditation and diet into a way of learning knowledge. I have never in my life been exposed to such a way of learning. It is amazing how open and receptive the mind is after a carefully designed couple of hours practice of yoga and meditation. And energising. My goodness, I have never got so much done in a day, sometimes after not much more than four hours sleep! Sometimes the teaching method could seem harsh, a bit of tough love. It takes a little getting used to sitting cross-legged, obediently in rows on the floor, like being back in kindergarten – especially funny for me as I set to crack 60 at the end of the year!

It had me think of the stories I have been told by kaumatua about the wānanga of old. The students of the wānanga, like students of the Veda in India, become capable of reciting incredibly long pieces of verse, of whakapapa, of chants, of waiata, and of scripture. For sure they spend a lot of time practising, and repeating the content over and over, but there is something about creating a sacred environment, about having the body and the spirit peaceful and open, that enables us to learn, more deeply more intuitively, more thoroughly. We simply don’t go anywhere near this way of learning in Western education systems. More and more they have focused solely on the intellect and cramming information into our memories.

What our learning was seeking to do was to have us ‘learn’ the content of a course, that was based on age-old knowledge. A bit like tikanga, it was knowledge that you did not edit, alter, ad lib, or add your creative spin to. The aim was to follow the knowledge accurately, but at the same time, make it your own, to deliver naturally. So it was a real dichotomy to deal with. How to be natural and make it ‘your own’ but stay true to the text; too far down the route of memorising and regurgitating, and you would lose your way. Too far down the road of ad-libbing and creating and again you would lose your way. The art and the science was to view your role as the conduit, as the vehicle for the knowledge without your ego or your performance being of any concern or relevance. This is far easier said than done. I do not see myself as particularly egotistical, but man, there are many layers to this, and often hidden quite deep at times is a concern about how well I perform.

It reminds me of some favourite interviews I have heard with musicians and writers, where they will often be asked, ‘where do your ideas come from?’ and, ‘how do you manage to play, sing and write so beautifully?’. And so, so, often they will say, ‘it is not about me, I am simply a channel, a vessel for the content that I share’.

This was a lot like that. And what an immense privilege.

The thing about this way of learning, is that the focus is on a lot of intangibles, the energy, the grace, the joy, the sharing, so that people are receiving something that is not about you! So beautiful.

And so I am saying to friends, colleagues and family, I would love this to be my day job! What more wonderful thing can you do than to bring happiness and wellbeing to others. Just watching the smiles, the beaming faces on the course is such a joy. People find such immense, peace and space in the environment that gets created. And, there are no strings attached!

Andrew Melville – 6 March 2020

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