When The Time Comes To "Awakin" ...
Posted by Audrey Lin on Dec 23, 2015
In 1996, three friends sat in silence, every Wednesday, in an ordinary living room in Silicon Valley. "No teachers or gurus. No set agendas or proposed beliefs either. Just one strong principle -- when you change within, the world changes. And instead of closing the door, they left it open ... to all."
Over the years, various folks have blogged about its ordinariness, the joy of service, and experience of abundance. And over 80 folks have been inspired to create their own circle in their corner of the world. Last week, 45 Awakin Circle hosts from across India and beyond convened in Pune for a 3-day “Awakin Hosts”-themed retreat.
“Welcome home. Welcome home, again,” Sheetal opened. Meghna then began a circle of sharing with her own story of encountering the Awakin Circle in Silicon Valley over a decade ago, when she was a young college student who’d come with a friend, and for whom the hour of silent meditation felt like foreign territory, the second hour of sharing a new kind of space, and Aunt Harshida’s love in the home-cooked dinner offering melted her heart.
Around the circle we went, with mothers and daughters, fathers and sons spanning half a century in age from Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Baroda, Surat, Dubai, Spain, and beyond. Deven noted that his transformation happened even before he and his wife, Shaalini started hosting the circles—through their simple practice of reading the Awakin passage together each week. He noted the power of the circle to hold space for people from any background regardless of their diverse perspectives. Neeti humorously shared how Awakin Circles taught her how to cook. Anupreet reflected on how the energy shifts in a collective that doesn’t happen when we are alone, while Goli noticed the shift in his parents—who went from watching television in their room during the circles, to being in their room quietly, to sitting in the circles—all with no direct request from anyone. Atul noticed how it shifted his relationship with his parents while Deven added that his daughter ended up sitting through a 1-day children’s meditation retreat, even though she was a year younger than the minimum age requirement. Across each story and share, the themes of tuning into subtlety, responding rather than reacting, and becoming sensitized to the people and situations around us emerged.
Later that afternoon, we heard extra-ordinary stories from a few folks’ hosting experiences. Yogesh-bhai shared how moved he was that his daughters seamlessly hosted their family’s Awakin Circles when he was on a walking pilgrimage. Before he departed, he simply had a wrinkle of a thought that he was worried about how the circles would go each week. No sooner had this line of consciousness entered his mind did his daughter say, “Don’t worry, we’ll call you after each Awakin Circle.”
In the following breakout session, we explored various shifts that we’ve noticed from our involvement in such a space. Uncle Hari shared how the spirit of the circle has shifted him “from friendship to family” and “from fear to fearlessness”. In his work life, he had a difficult conversation with his company chairperson, in which he gave his honest feedback (from one human to another, rather than from a subordinate to higher-up) and the chairperson simply said, “You know, you’re making sense. Let’s explore this more.”
After a day of stories, we sat in collective stillness and then filtered into the dining hall to a stunning silent dinner—where we were awestruck by the candlelit beauty, humility, and reverence with which the volunteers had decorated the space, welcomed us in a line of bows, and served with such delicate grace and sincerity. After the meal, everyone was eager to serve the volunteers, and a few folks thought it would be nice to invite the cafeteria staff, who had been curiously watching the scenic dinner unfold on the premises.
As a crew of folks invited the staff to the meal, they shook their heads, explaining, “We have to stay here to serve food to the other residents.”
“We’ll stand here and serve food on your behalf,” was the instant reply. And with shy grins, the kitchen staff (who so invisibly and thoroughly had been serving us from the moment we arrived on the campus grounds) sat down and received a spontaneous meal offering served by our Awakin posse.
The next morning, we began our second day with an hour of collective stillness. Then, after a nourishing breakfast (with Parag’s surprise specialty biscuits from Surat!), we reconvened in a circle of reflections from the previous day and (by popular demand :)) flowed into Nipun’s stories and learnings over 18 years of hosting Awakin Circles. He summed up five shifts:
1. From Broad to Deep
2. From Taking to Giving
3. From Sound Bytes to Assuming Value Everywhere
4. From Extraordinary to Ordinary
5. From Scarcity to Abundance
With a down-to-earth sincerity, he noted how the regenerative quality of these circles lies not in the inspiration from fantastic ripples, but rather, in the ordinary (and often invisible) moments of transformation. How rather than ask people to do the dishes, it became a personal practice and privilege to silently do all the dishes; and over time, people’s cups of gratitude overflowed, moving them to elbow their way towards the kitchen sink after dinner. How rather than keeping tabs on what book has been lent to whom and when, it also became a practice to support each attendee’s journeys by creating an ‘open-source bookshelf’ and continually keeping it stocked with high-quality books for folks to take home and pass on. It is these micro-moments in action that give one the opportunity to cultivate a heart of service from the inside-out— that enable us to consciously choose to respond with love in any given instance. In so doing, we transform ourselves. And in the process, perhaps the world around us transforms as well, in silent, subtle, unknowable ways.
After a timeless session of stories, a spontaneous round of Q&A emerged, with questions ranging from “How can I give more purely” to “Should I make the food sattvik?”
In the after-glow of such genuine reflections, Sachi surprised us with a string of video greetings from Awakin Circle hosts abroad, who were unable to travel the long distances to the retreat. From Tim in Bhutan to Sima in San Francisco, Nilam in Detroit, and Harshida and Dinesh in Silicon Valley—the spectrum of greetings zoomed us out into the larger scheme of 80+ such circles around the globe, and gave us a glimpse into the diverse yet unified essence of such gatherings.
On top of it all, Sheetal remarked how the labor-of-love spirit knows no bounds, as he shared how, due to limited internet connectivity at the retreat center, one volunteer in Pune stayed up all night downloading the video messages, then drove an hour to meet another driver to hand off the files for us to be able to view them today.
With stories and insights stirring among all 45 of us, that afternoon we divvied up into small breakout groups for deeper-dive conversations into our own practices and edges in hosting Awakin Circles.
For such an ordinary gathering, it’s quite striking how much effort it takes to become effortless. Edges ranged from questions around how to compassionately keep time during the second hour’s circle of sharing to what kind of food to cook, how to keep the circle rooted in reflection rather than debate, how to authentically and consistently host the circle on days when we may not be in a frame of mind to hold such a space, maintaining the sanctity of the space, and beyond.
As we transitioned to sharing our own practices in these circles, we were elevated by each other’s manifestations of stillness, gratitude, and renunciation.
From Stillness to Gratitude. Swara noted how her sister, Jignasha, would prepare the meal offering in silence, and start meditating a half hour before, to invite guests in the space of stillness. Every week after Awakin in Sheetal and Khushmita’s home, Atul sits in silence for another hour, simply to reflect and digest all that he had received from the circle. Goli and Anupreet noted how hosting Awakins prompted them to create a gratitude table that then became part of their home. Meghna began sending thank-you emails after each circle, using it as an opportunity to reflect and express gratitude on what folks had shared.
Dissolving the ‘I’. In many ways, hosting such circles becomes an opportunity to give of our time, energy, belongings and heart, dissolving ourselves in the process. Deven shared his practice of posting a quote in the entryway to welcome meditators, and how his wife, Shaalini, often fasts through lunch on the day of their gatherings. Similarly, Tharanath and his wife eat only after everyone else has eaten. Pratyush remembered how when his family hosted the circles on Saturday, he’d make it an excuse to spend the day in service, going out to clean or serve at local ashrams. Robin realized that hosting Awakins gave him the practice of cleaning bathrooms each week. Cheena observed how helping anchor the circles put him in a mindset of giving more time to get to know others.
Time and time again, the quality of listening and learning from the collective with an open heart, and seeing value in each person or situation that we encounter, became signatures themes of the space.
“We’re not a nonprofit organization, we’re a non-prophet organization!” Joserra joked.
Many questions were raised around how to hold space for agenda-less emergence while also drawing some parameters to maintain the sanctity and spirit of such an Awakin space. That evening, we held our own Awakin Circle, with an eye for the rotating roles. As we embarked on a circle of sharing around the passage of “Beggarly, Friendly, and Kingly Giving,” Khushmita welcomed everyone as Homi and Uncle Trilok read the reading in English and Hindi. Nipun Shah opened with initial reflections, Joserra “kept time with compassion,” and everyone’s open-hearted presence fueled a collective depth of sharing around the circle. Khushmita recounted how Vinit, one of the Awakin anchors in Pune was moved by the spirit of service in such circles, and began cooking a weekly meal and serving it to anyone on the street that came his way until the food ran out. One week, this included a cow, whom he was prompted to wordlessly serve all the food he had made (a quantity enough for 20+ people)! He later shared that this was one of the most sacred moments of his life in which he experienced grace and wondered “who gives, who receives.” Darpan noted his shift in perspective from giving materials to giving of his time, and later, of his very presence. Neeti recounted with soulful humor a Mahabharata parable of Arjuna and Krishna, which ended with the lesson that “when we do His work, He takes care of our needs”. We all soaked in and mirrored the depth of gratitude with which Parag-bhai shared about an attendant who has been caring for his special needs son for the last 17 years like a parent himself.
Post-dinner, stories, song, and prayers emulated under the night sky as we circled up around a bonfire, and we retired for the evening, our bodies tired but soul rested, both empty and filled to the brim with something deeper than we may know.
On the morning of our final day, Yashodra reflected on an answer-in-progress to her ongoing question of how to best nurture deeper values in her children: “If I only keep doing this—just creating this [Awakin Circle] space in my own house—that’s going to be enough.”
Sheetal quoted how there are “525,600 minutes,” but how do you really measure a year? Circles like these are “as old as the hills,” he reminded us, and recounted an analogy Vinoba shared, of how a triangle’s angles are always the same, no matter how short or long its sides are. In that spirit, no matter how small or large our actions may be, the intentions with which they are prompted and infused, is what really shines through.
In a practice of humility inspired by Rev. Heng Sure, we filtered out of the hall and around the campus, taking a few steps and a bow as we go. In an inspired moment of generosity, one of the resident flute players at the retreat center decided to offer a spontaneous flute recital for the entire duration of the bowing practice. As we finally came full circle back to the Maitri Hall, we were met at the door by a volunteer crew, who washed each person's feet in the spirit of service.
As quickly as we came together, we go. A new wave of folks from another group fill the retreat center. Our three days together dissolve into the invisible repositories of time, yet strands of its spirit breeze into the future. Like the seeds of a dandelion, we disperse into our various directions, the same and yet changed in wordless ways.