Tsunami Experience at the Ashram
Tuesday morning, December 21, 2004I am in an airplane en route to Kochi from Mumbai. At last my dream trip to India is underway.
I began planning it in early November, when I had a rare vision in meditation of my guru, Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, who appeared to invite me to India. I had wanted to visit India for years, but thought that the two weeks I had at Christmas time would not be enough time for a trip of such magnitude. Nevertheless I started inquiring, only to be told by the travel agent I contacted that I had waited too late to book and that all seats to India during that time frame were sold. I thought that was the end of it, but to my surprise the travel agent called me back two days later to inform me that he had found a passage to India for me. I booked it, and began to prepare.
The Air India plane departed six hours late from New York, causing me to miss my scheduled connection i n Mumbai for Kochi. Something extraordinary happened as I was waiting to disembark in Mumbai. For only the second time in my life, I experienced psychic hearing. Although I was very tired and jetlagged from the long journey, I heard Amma’s voice very clearly inside my ear assuring me that she was with me and welcoming me to India. I found this message reassuring when I started to encounter all sorts of obstacles in the Mumbai airport rescheduling my flight to Kochi. Finally, with a little luck (and grace, no doubt), I got the last standby seat on an Indian Airline flight much later than my scheduled one and I was on my way to the ashram.
Tuesday evening, December 21, 2004, Amritapuri, IndiaI am writing this in the dark before going to bed. Jetlag. One of my two roommates has already turned in for the night. Hence no light.
What light I had in the plane however! The flight from Mumbai to Kochi was in radiant tropical light, most welcome after the darkness of New York. I basked in the light and had visions of Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Lord Buddha, and Padmasambhava all smiling at me and welcoming me to India, the heartland of spirituality.
The three-hour taxi ride from Kochi was a horror. Drivers jumped lanes with mad abandon, and my cab narrowly missed numerous pedestrians and cyclists on the side of the road.
Amritapuri is an oasis after the taxi ordeal, as beautiful as I imagined it would be. From the balcony near my room on the fourteenth floor, the view of the Indian Ocean and endless rows of palm trees is stunning. Am I in an ashram or a resort hotel?
I feel awkward trying to fit in to ashram life. I made a number of beginners’ mistakes this evening: taking more food than I could eat, dropping and cracking my water bottle while trying to wash my bowl, mixing up someone else’s sandals with mine after bhajans, etc. I still stumble occasionally when pronouncing the traditional Hindu mantra of greeting. It is not easy adjusting to sleeping in close quarters with roommates.
Even so I can tell I am going to like this place.
Wednesday, December 22, noonI am sitting quietly in my room on the fourteenth floor trying to stave off jetlag.
This morning I got up at 4:30 to attend the chanting service (108 and 1000 names of Divine Mother) in the main hall. Men and women chant in separate halls. Chai, spiced tea with milk, was served at 6:00. I phoned a friend in New York, where it was still Tuesday night. At 7:30 I did yoga asanas on a high balcony of my building and then sat in meditation. Breakfast was at nine: porridge with coconut cream, rice cakes, a hard-boiled egg, and yogurt. The food in the western canteen suits me fine; friends have advised me that the regular ashram food (rice and vegetable curry) is quite spicy.
So far I have felt well except for jetlag. The swelling in my ankles that developed during the long plane ride has begun to subside.
I can hear Amma’s voice soaring out of the loud speakers as I write this.
There are so many people here, speaking so many languages. I look forward to trotting out my Spanish, French, and German.
This morning I met Prashanta from Pennsylvania as I was watching two Brahminy Kites build a nest across from the ashram with my small binoculars from a balcony near the top of my building.
Thursday, December 23, 2:00 p.m.I had been having a problem finding a quiet place to meditate in the ashram, but this morning my problem was solved. After breakfast and my seva (service to the ashram), chopping vegetables, a young man asked me if I would help move chairs onto the stage of the large hall where Amma was giving darshan to Indian visitors. I had decided that if anyone in the ashram asked me to help with anything, I would consider it as though Amma herself was asking me; so I consented readily. After moving several chairs, I felt Amma beckoning me to remain on the stage and sit in one of the chairs behind her. I did so and had a wonderful meditation. I could feel her working with me, massaging my heart in a way that felt almost squeamishly intimate and reminding me that my heart needed to be opened further. I felt connected to her by an umbilical cord and at times that I was being cradled in her arms like a little baby. A dark baby with a large dark mother. My lower chakras felt almost sensuous, and I was reminded of how the lotus starts its journey in the mud before making its way into the light. I sensed how these openings in the lower chakras could fuel energy for the higher chakras. Heady stuff.
Friday, December 24, 10:30 a.m.I am sitting on the floor of the small temple waiting for Amma to arrive to conduct a meditation and answer questions from ashramites.
This morning I woke up at 2:30, too early again, and meditated until the chanting service at 4:30. Since I was struggling with concentration, I stopped and lay down and tried to envision Amma sitting next to me. For a moment I drifted into a dream state, and when I came to, it was with the distinct sensation of a chocolate Hershey kiss, Amma’s Prasad, in my right hand.
The morning chanting service was very beautiful. Starting the day with music, I could gradually feel my being throwing off the sluggishness of the night and attuning to divine energy. I experienced Amma in what Buddhists call a dharmakaya state, a formless being of light and color, music, love, and energy. There was no body but the energy was distinctly stamped with her personality. It felt as if I were approaching her consciousness through a watery medium, swimming from the darker depths of the ocean into her light, carried on the current of chanting.
I stood in the men’s line for chai at six again as the sun was rising, then hurried back to my room for washing, did a quick salute to the sun and short sitting meditation on the balcony, and then went to chop vegetables again: garlic, onions, and ginger. My hands still reek of garlic despite several washings.
Breakfast in the western food line was delicious as usual—too tasty for ashram food! Aren’t ashrams supposed to help aspirants cut their attachments to physical pleasures? I had porridge, coconut cream, soda bread, and curd (yogurt).
It occurred to me that she permits the western food to be tasty, as that attracts more Westerners to come here. And the more Westerners who come and spend money, the more jobs she provides for the poor local people. Part of her mission is to make the lives of the local people better. Very clever, Amma. I will have to learn to cut my attachments to tasty food elsewhere!
Yesterday evening I took a boat ride with other ashramites up the backwater to an old Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali, one form of Divine Mother. It was an awesome experience. I felt as if I were traveling back in time a thousand years. The Indian men still fish with nets suspended from odd-looking riggings made of tree trunks posted in the water at intervals. They navigate on long narrow boats which they propel by poles. We waved at the young men as we passed. The river was full of birds. Earlier I had spotted an Indian kingfisher (like the one on the beer bottle label!) near the boat landing, and from the boat I saw lots of egrets, cormorants, terns, kites, a bittern, and --most notably – a falcon.
When we arrived at the temple we were met by children with their parents in the background. We walked a short distance to the temple, where our guide John instructed the men to take their shirts off – a traditional sign of respect. There were special shrines for Kali and Ganesha, the elephant god, and other lesser shrines. We gave the young priest attending Kali’s shrine a few rupees, said prayers, and prostrated. I was deeply moved.
The boat ride back to the ashram was magical in the late afternoon sun. One of the young Indian boatmen reminded me of a friend from my youth. I chatted with Jai Ram and some other friendly people from Australia. As we approached the ashram landing, we were greeted by the rich sound of Amma’s bhajans (hymns) emanating from speakers filling and blessing the Indian night.
Saturday, December 25It’s Christmas day and somehow I got myself into a song-and-dance routine that was presented tonight to a large audience of ashramites and Amma.
Yesterday afternoon as I was finishing a short tour of the ashram, a young man approached me and asked me if I would like to be in a show. Hesitantly I accepted and agreed to meet for a rehearsal later that evening. I was one of a group of seven men who were to run on stage at the end of the program and start a four-line chant, a celebration of the unity of all beings, taken from the text of one of Amma’s speeches. We were to jump up and down, use hand signs as we sang, and generally cavort and act like kids. Later others in the cast would join us as we repeated the refrain over and over.
I struggled to master the choreography of the hand signs and my stage nerves. The universe set me up: I had to face my karma on stage. In front of Amma, no less.
Before our part of the program, some ashramites put on a skit of the Nativity and a young woman performed a daring acrobatic piece with fiery torches that the audience loved.
At last our turn came. To my surprise I was relaxed and joyous as I performed before Amma.
Sunday, December 26, 4:00 p.m.Great excitement today! We had an earthquake and a flood!
I was meditating at about 6:30 a.m. on the south balcony of my floor, focusing on my chakras when I suddenly felt my body shake from the ground up. I began to convulse as waves of energy passed up my spinal channel. Immediately a vast interior space o pened up and I was flooded with visions. One of the first deities I saw was Shiva, a Hindu god whom I do not work with. I recognized him by the trident he was carrying. The thought of an earthquake passed through my mind but when I touched the concrete floor, it was still. Then I felt the building sway and I knew that an earthquake had indeed occurred. I remained immersed in deep meditation for sometime. The visions I had were like something out of Carlos Castaneda or Autobiography of a Yogi. In one of them I saw the form of Amma morph into that of Lord Buddha, whom I recognized from an earlier vision. I had a clear vision of the interior of my body as a vast temple. My chakras were full of light and I could feel a lotus growing out of my crown chakra.. For the first time in my life, I really felt and understood prana.
After breakfast and seva, chopping vegetables again, I went to sit in the small temple with Amma as she gave darshan to more Indian visitors. Once again I felt her urging me to come closer to her in the hall. In my meditation a fluid well of consciousness was opening up. I felt waves of energy passing up my spinal channel. I experienced Amma as a jewel, a diamond sending out gleams, star-like, in all directions. One beam of light was specially for me.
Again I felt her massaging my heart.
A little before one o’clock I left the hall and walked to the store to buy another bottle of water. I helped some new arrivals to find the registration center, and they mentioned that there had been flooding along the coast as they rode by taxi to the ashram. A few minutes later some men from the village came running in shouting that water was coming, and soon the large temple and the ashram grounds were covered in about a foot of water. As the water continued to rise, I decided to wade to the nearest building between the two temples where I took refuge on the second floor sitting on a wooden crate. After a while I decided to wade back through the water, which had subsided, to my building. As I rounded the corner, I encountered Amma, who was in a towering wrath with two Indian men who were making their way through the knee-deep water to a stairwell. She was shouting at them in Malayalam, grabbing them physically to prevent them from going up the stairs, and motioning in the direction of the cowsheds. Although I could not understand her words, I assumed that the men were in charge of the cows and that she was insisting that they go back and tend to the animals, which might have been left chained up. Whatever the case, she staged a magnificent fury. Then she walked about the ashram with some brahmacharis (male renunciants), instructing people to go to higher floors for safety. Later she decided that everyone should evacuate the ashram, taking boats across the backwater to the village of Vallikalu across the way. She sent brahmacharinis (female renunciants) to each building to knock on all doors to make sure that everyone got the word. She had the brahmacharis secure a cord to be used as a handrail all the way through the ashram to the boat landing so that people would not slip in the water. I stuffed a few things in my backpack and joined the crowd. When we reached the far shore, we plodded through the village along partly submerged paths to the local school of engineering, one of the products of Amma’s charities, still under construction. There our passports were returned to us and we were served a meal of rice and vegetable curry. (How did she have such a meal prepared for so many so quickly?) I talked with Brian and Pria, a couple from San Diego, who had been on the fifteenth floor of my building when the tsunami rolled in and had witnessed the whole thing. They said they could see children being swept out to sea in the powerful undertow. Boats in the backwater came unmoored. We heard rumors of lots of casualties along the coasts of both India and Indonesia. Apparently the decision to evacuate coastal regions was made because it was thought that another tsunami might come later.
As I sit writing this I am surrounded by a large group of devotees, mostly women, who are chanting the names of Divine Mother. Some have tears in their eyes.
Monday, December 27, 2:00 p.m.We are still at the School of Engineering and have been told that the length of our stay is uncertain. So it’s official: I am in a refugee center and this is an adventure.
I ate a few of the raisins and almonds I brought from New York for dinner last night and slept on the floor of a cubicle in one of the classrooms on the top (fourth) floor. On a hard tile floor with just a towel and my meditation cushion for support. I was grateful that I had with me an inflatable air pillow loaned by a friend in New York for the long plane ride. I awoke about five and went out on the roof and meditated under a beautiful starry night sky. The moon was nearly full but was well along its way to the western horizon. I could see Mercury and Venus together on the eastern horizon just before dawn, Mars a little further up, Jupiter overhead, and Saturn near the moon. To the south I could make out Canopus and the Southern Cross.
I still have remarkable visions and other experiences. I saw Amma as a large all-seeing eye in a pool of light, and I ascended up to her chanting my mantra and helped her in the business of consoling all the beings who had lost lives, loved ones, and homes in the terrible floods. Strangely it was as though we were sitting together on a sunny mountainside, simultaneously sorrowful and joyous.
Telephones and power are out, but we have filtered water and English language newspapers that report that 10,000 people lost their lives in Indonesia. Om ami deva hri. Om mani padme hung.
I walked into town to buy water, a toothbrush and toothpaste, bananas and tangerines, and worked my way back to the boat landing. I walked slowly because blisters had broken out on my feet when my sandals got wet yesterday. No one was being allowed to ferry across to the ashram. We heard rumors that Amma and the brahmacharis were sifting through the debris in the ashram and that bodies were still being found. I then walked to the nearby computer school, also built by Amma’s charities. I sat by the beautiful interior garden for a while, until a woman passed by and noticed my blistered feet. She recommended that I go to the infirmary on the second floor of the school building where I had spent the night. I had been told that in India small abrasions and cuts should be tended to quickly to prevent swelling and infection, so I took her advice. After I washed my feet, the friendly nurse, Prasita, painstakingly swabbed my blisters with hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, and dressed them, wrapping both feet in gauze and securing them with ace bandages. She recommended that I buy new sandals.
I then sat on the veranda of the second floor of the white school building, chanted mantras, meditated, and sang to myself the refrain of a bhajan I had become fond of, "Jagadambe jai jai ma," which I believe means victory to the Divine Mother. The word had gone out from Amma that those of us in the refugee center should do as much spiritual practice as possible to alleviate the widespread suffering. Still whenever I went into meditation it was deep and blissful, with visions as though I were physically close to Amma. Later a kind German man offered to go into town to buy me new sandals, since I found walking difficult. Around one o’clock I ate my first meal of the day. This time there was dal with the rice and curry. Soon afterward Amma arrived to reassure ashramites. She had spent the morning consoling villagers who had lost loved ones in the flood. Amazingly no ashram residents or visitors were harmed.
I am astonished at this whole experience. The outer earthquake and flood were mirrored by an earthquake and flood inside me. To receive such a major spiritual awakening in the presence of my guru during a calamity, and then to find how calm I am in circumstances that would try most people—it’s all beyond my wildest imagination. Victory to the Mother!
Tuesday, December 28I am now more convinced than ever that Amma facilitated the opening of my kundalini during the earthquake. Now every time I meditate my spinal column stretches out to its full length like a poised cobra and I can feel waves of prana rising up the central channel. I cry often, sometimes blissfully, sometimes compassionately. It is interesting that the first deity I saw during the earthquake, Shiva, is associated with destruction and regeneration. Before something new can be created, he must destroy what was there first. The earthquake brought terrible suffering to many, but for me it was an occasion when something inside was destroyed so that something new could be built in its place.
Now it is remarkable that I have been sent to this school building during the flood as a refugee without my sunscreen and with blisters on my feet. The universe seems to be telling me that I am not supposed to run around but to use my immobility here as an opportunity to meditate intensely. And each new meditation brings new revelations. This morning I developed a meditation on the interior of my body with the chakras as a temple for the soul. Amma sat on a white lotus in my heart chakra in the center of the temple and I did prostrations before her. I felt the interior of my body grow vast and spacious. My crown chakra was open like a giant sunroof allowing radiant white light to pour into the temple.
Something else has become clear to me. When I was first assigned a seva chopping vegetables at seven a.m., I was grumpy. My first two days in fact I reported for seva late. I had set a busy morning schedule for myself: rising at 4:30 for the chanting service, followed by chai, bathing, a salute to the sun and other asanas, a period of silent meditation, followed by breakfast. I had even hoped to do a little bird watching before the day got hot and I had to be out of the direct sun. How much better, I thought, it would have been if I had been given another seva to do in the middle of the day.
However I could not see the bigger picture. Because of the early seva, I decided to omit bathing and some of the yoga from my routine, and to move a shorter meditation period up in my timetable. Thus by coincidence that was no coincidence, I was meditating at 6:30 a.m. at the time the earthquake occurred. Had it not been for the early seva, I would probably have been in the shower at the time of the earthquake and missed the unique meditation experience.
Some of Amma’s devotees have said that she manipulates events for our benefit and growth. I am now more convinced of this than before. The earthquake, the offer to help carry things that put me on stage with her during the Indian darshan, seeing her fury during the flood, the invitation to be on stage during the Christmas show, and now my bandaged feet and forgotten sunscreen – all of these things can be understood as opportunities for my spiritual growth.
Wednesday, December 29, 1:00 p.m.We are now into our fourth day at the School of Engineering, but may get word in an upcoming meeting on when we will return to the ashram.
It is amazing how rumors set off people’s fears here. Monday night late a villager came running in warning that another flood was coming. Immediately the Indian refugees staying on the first floor panicked and stampeded up the stairs. Luckily no one was hurt. It was a long time before order was restored. Many of the Indian refugees spent the night sleeping on the upper floors, including areas that had been set aside for Westerners. An Indian man moved his mat into my cubicle and slept the rest of the night a few feet from me.
Yesterday the rumor was that we would be allowed to return to the ashram to pick up extra clothes. Earlier we had heard the announcement again that Amma wanted the devotees in the refugee center to do as much spiritual practice as possible to alleviate some of the suffering that had occurred with the disaster. At 2:30 I was in my cubicle about to start chanting when I had a flash of Amma telling me sharply that I needed to get going right away. Hesitantly I heeded the warning and went down to the information table on the second floor where a spokesman was announcing that the rumor was false: no one was yet allowed to return to the ashram. However I learned that I needed to reconfirm my flight home at a special desk set up at the computer school that was only open from 3:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon. I took care of the matter, grateful for the warning to hurry from Amma.
This morning during meditation in my cubicle, I learned that I could keep my mind peaceful and focused on an object of concentration, even with noisy drilling going on outside my window. Later I asked for further clarification of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, a concept that is central to the Buddha’s teachings but that I have always found difficult to understand. Soon afterward I began to smell Tibetan incense. A psychic smell such as I have never had before! Then I had a vision of Padmasambhava, the saint who brought Buddhist teachings from India over the high Himalayan passes into Tibet and converted the formerly aggressive people of Tibet to ways of peace. I was given to understand that the importance of the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness was in the capacity that we each have to work an inner transformation on any outer forms or circumstances. It dawned on me that I had fashioned such a transformation during the last few days.
Hygienically, conditions are less than optimal, but I am managing. Every morning I wash myself as best I can at a washbasin in the men’s restroom on my floor, using the ayurvedic soap I bought in town. I also wash out the only pair of underwear I have with me and one of my two t-shirts using the same soap. I try to be frugal with water, as there are signs posted asking us to conserve. I hang my wet clothes on bars on a window of my cubicle to dry. Things dry quickly here in the hot Indian sun.
After three days in the same khaki pants, I decided I needed to buy myself a dhoti, the large rectangular piece of cloth that Indian men of the region wrap around their lower bodies secured at the waist. I went into town and bought a white one with red and blue embroidery at opposite ends for 48 rupees, slightly more than one U.S. dollar. I struggled to secure it properly and to walk in it without tripping. This morning walking over to the computer school for breakfast, I was worried that it might slip off. It may be a while before I feel comfortable in a dhoti.
Friday, December 31, 11:30 p.m.I am sitting in the Kochi airport waiting to be checked in for my flight to Mumbai. The taxi ride from Vallikalu took three hours. Then I had a late supper in the airport restaurant.
The taxi ride was less hectic than the one to the ashram, but it was still far from peaceful. I had a conversation with Brian and Pria before departing. They invited me to visit them in their nice apartment, beautifully furnished with real beds and a mirror, one floor above mine in the E-dormitory. They mentioned that in their experience August was a good time to visit the ashram. Who knows? Maybe I will return in August.
I was sad to leave the cubicle in the School of Engineering where I stayed for four nights, where I had had so many wonderful inner experiences. I wept tears of joy as I bowed to the miniature altar I had improvised with Amma’s picture on the straw mat on the hard tile floor. I still feel a strong loyalty to the spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism, but have come to a greater appreciation of Hindu spirituality as a result of this trip. I may want to pursue both forms of spirituality. For me they are not incompatible. If Ramakrishna could pursue more than one spiritual tradition, why can’t I?
Today was a day of doing seva in addition to moving back to the ashram from the School of Engineering. In the morning I dried CD cases after other devotees washed them. After lunch I helped scrub big cooking pots and hauled them back to their storage places, getting a good introduction to the kitchen run mostly by male devotees. Women help peeling and cutting vegetables, but men cook. I understand that shortly after the flood Amma met with the brahmacharis who were to serve in the kitchen near the computer school to remind them of the importance during this period of using purified water and good hygiene so that none of the refugee ashramites would get sick.
Doing so much seva on my last day, I felt I was repaying Amma for the wonderful initiation I had had here under her guidance.
Finally later in the afternoon I took a short walk from the ashram for my first close view of the Indian Ocean, bordered by a dike of large gray boulders. It was calm.
Saturday, January 1, early a.m.Now I am sitting in a large waiting area at the Kochi airport, having cleared immigration and the security check, and preparing myself for the long journey home. I am hearing the most beautiful celestial music—a chorus of heavenly voices that earthly ears cannot hear. Are they singing to Mata Amritanandamayi? I am reminded of a vision I had during my stay of the Tibetan saint Milarepa, his spine elongated, a conch shell at his ear, symbol of psychic hearing.
It is New Year’s Day. I look forward to returning to New York, having my first shower in a week, and sleeping in a real bed, but I know I will miss India.
I used to think I might have made a mistake asking a Hindu holy woman if she would be guru to me, a Buddhist practitioner, when it was unlikely that I would ever have any conversation with her longer than the smile she directed at me, standing in a crowd, the first time I saw her. No longer. Never underestimate the power of an enlightened being!
I feel her hand reaching in to touch my heart in the intimate way I have grown accustomed to. Then I feel like a baby nestled in her arms. Then I become a child dressed in white with an overflowing heart sitting with her on a hillside of light, the music of flutes and tambourines in the air.