Friday, September 21, 2007
My first thought was, this is unusually early for me. I quickly revised my assessment to, this is much more unusual than it is early. Finally I refined my thought to, it is too early to be this unusual. I don’t often gather with forty others in the living room of an opulent house owned by someone I have never met to sit patiently for the arrival of someone who has been compared to Ghandi.
The house in the Bridlepath welcomes you with a circular driveway leading right up to a modern translucent plate glass front door bordered by gardens and fountains. The modern architecture was straining not to be kitsch but the eye is more forgiving when the scale and the signs of abundance are of this magnitude. The plate glass surround in the foyer and the light coloured marble floor provide an uncluttered roomscape for the antique vases and the Chinese antique art. Though not over dressed, there were messages of wealth everywhere. As I mentioned this is not my normal circumstance and I found myself to be comfortable and not entirely at ease.
The living room seating, all perfectly spaced and arranged in a gentle curve is facing one larger place of honour, empty and silent in front of massive windows facing a lush garden that obscures most of the tennis court in behind. At the foot of the chair lies a beautiful silk carpet with subtle intricacies in design and colour I have never seen before. Light and space seem to keep the atmosphere fresh even as the room fills with unfamiliar faces. They are all dressed for an evening dinner at this early breakfast gathering. A video on the work of the Art of Living Foundation was playing on a large wide screened TV. The sight of technology seemed to scratch the patina of the tranquil setting.
The Consul General of India, a soft-spoken man, apologized for the delay of our distinguished guest. He spoke of him with great reverence as he explained the reason and he was careful not to disrupt the calm. This would not be the first apology he would have to make because the delay was much longer than anyone had anticipated.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar enters a room as if he is walking down a sidewalk, without formality or pretense. His white native dress appears especially exotic and culturally rich, milky white and flowing with accents of gold outlines. His face is warm and endearing against the backdrop of the glass and marble and his voice is not deep and soft, it is light and warm. His palms are pressed together as if in prayer as he acknowledges each of us. His first instruction is a series of simple stress reduction exercises followed by a lesson in breathing and meditation. It is difficult surrendering to the moment entirely because I am very conscious of how absurd this group would appear to an uninitiated onlooker. Flashes of the Buddah of Suburbia went through my mind, kureishi, bowie, the neighbourhoods of the lost and found. Soon I was able to appreciate my awareness of myself, alone and the other didn't matter.
I had occasion to meet Deepak Chopra along with another group of business people for a small dinner. Sri Sri and Chopra are not so dissimilar although their ideas and their approaches are distinctly different. The thing that makes them credible individuals to skeptics like myself is their complete respect for the free will of others. Unlike politicians, educators, business relationships and all of their respective institutions, there is no agenda other than to inform you. Both of them gently offer a proposition, you are left to choose freely to accept or refuse and the outcome is entirely your responsibility alone.
So here I sit in front of another, a man who is an advocate of what it is to be child-like. His expertise appears to be in the two things all of us do too little of, stopping and reflecting. His meditation is stopping, not focussing, not turning off, just stopping in order to temporarily let go of the entanglements between the mind, the intellect, the ego and the soul. The advantage to his dialogue is derived simply from having spent time reflecting. Comparatively and in contrast our behaviour is largely either imitative or automatic or both, habitual responses to common or familiar situations with very little serious reflection if any at all. Surprises are few and the probability of an epiphany is zero.
I asked Sri Sri a question that has been top of mind for me lately, "In business, in our relationships with nature and each other there is something that seems quite pervasive these days and that is denial. Denial seems to stand between such things as the willingness to act and an action." In response he made the observation that we tend to doubt good news, that is, when someone says, "What a great hat you have!" the response is "Do you really think so?" whereas if it is a remark about a bad thing we tend to doubt it less and accept more readily. Conversely, if someone says, "What a terrible hat you have!" the other's response is not "Do you really think so?" Instead we are instantly self-conscious and in doubt about the choice of hat we made. The lesson he proposes is that fear and insecurity cause us to doubt the good. In light of the question I asked his point seemed rather indirect to me. Secondly, I believe our fear and insecurity can cause us to doubt anything.
I had to leave the event early and I missed what appeared to be a grand and glamourous breakfast. Sri Sri responded to my expression of thanks the same way he did when we greeted him, with his hands in prayer position and an acknowledging bow. My experience was short but in my mind I had travelled without leaving home. It was a peaceful trip, suspended time. I was disoriented as I re-entered the world of traffic, meetings and complexity.
It is seldom you meet someone who knows the history of his or her own country well. This was one of those occasions. As we talked and he revealed his homeland, I asked about the main industry in the city of his birth with the naïve view that this information would suggest why it existed two hundred miles west of Lahore. His response was mangoes, the best mangoes in the world. He described the over-sized golden fruit with pride and adoration, informing me of the greatest attributes of the fruit itself, its comparative quality on a world scale and the reason for their relatively high price in Toronto’s Gerrard East Pakistani markets, and finally he punctuated his monologue on mangoes with a description of its most treasured quality, “Sweeeeeeeeeet” he sang with a joyous smile and his hand raised in praise. He instantly segued to the same analysis on the merits of tangerines. Finally, I was compelled to ask, “Is your family in farming?”
History in general is regarded as the sister of other things – the history of philosophy, the history of literature, etc. - merely performing an archival role on behalf of the proposed heart of the matter. On my spontaneous prompt about farming and with the mere suggestion that the farming might be of historical relevance in his family he launched into his own analysis of time.
History to this cab driver is as it should be, a chronicle of transformation, a sequence of events provoked by powerful characters, each with their own dispositions and motives, and a record of the migration of people, religion and souls. He spoke of the movement of the Aryan people, the changing character of the rulers of his country, the impact of the Mongols and the ruthlessness of their practices, the development of his Islamic sect, the Amhaddiyat, the uniqueness if his belief, the persecution of his sect to the present day and the repopulating of his people in different parts of the world, the diaspora.
I asked him what his family does in his country to which he replied, “We’re farmers. We have been farmers for thousands of years.”