Greening The Earth & Seeding Compassion In The Hearts

Posted by Arpita Thakkar on Feb 5, 2020
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[Aviram Rozin the founder of Sadhana Forest shared his journey of transforming self along with the seventy acres of severely eroded, arid land on the outskirts of Auroville into a lush green forest at Awakin Talks, Vadodara. He is the member of the Global Restoration Council and a board member of the Foundation for World Education. Below is the transcript and recording of his compassionate and collaborative way of life which is also his message to the world.]

[Listen to audio-only]

Thank you, everyone, for inviting me and having me here in the lands of Banyans. I am so happy to be here. I come from a community that is centred around a Banyan. Auroville is centred around a Banyan planted near the Matrimandir. So Banyans are a very important feature in our lives. My name is Aviram and I will tell you my story very shortly. I was born two times that I know. One time in Israel in 1965 and one time was in India in 1988. I came here for the first time in 1988 with my wife Yorit and after three days we knew that we would live in India forever. It was very clear to us. It was not clear to Indian immigration at that time (laughs) but it was very clear to us.

I had a normal childhood. I went to school and university and served in the Israeli army, partially in Israel and partially in Lebanon. Then went to University and worked and made money and career and all this. But then I felt that something is missing, something very fundamental is missing in my life. A sense of purpose, a sense of knowing why, why am I here. What is my role here because of the things that I did many people could do. It was not something that I felt really deeply connected to. And in 1997, I went the first time to the east. I went for my work to Bangkok and Thailand and I was 32 years old and for the first time, I saw people meditating. Where I come from; people don't meditate. (Laughs) Maybe now they do but at that time they did not meditate. They worked to make money. So when I saw first-time people meditating and it was like mind-blowing for me. It was wow. They are not doing anything but they seem to go through a lot and it was fascinating. Immediately, actually saw a few monks meditating in a little temple off the street and I walked into the temple and sat there and started meditating with them. It was like an immediate attraction and then when I went deeper and deeper into this thought that there is something in life that is beyond what I am experiencing and started reading different books and meditating myself more. And then decided okay it's enough with this job and what I am doing. I managed to convince my wife (laughs) also to go for one year and explore what that means for us.

So first we went to Thailand because that is where the memory was of the first encounter with this part of life and then after a few months in Thailand we went to India and after three days, it was the first of January 1988 we knew that this is our home. We drove the motorcycle from Chennai to Nepal all of central India and had an amazing chance to explore the villages of India in the times where you can still experience them more than now without road and phones and television and electricity. It was very precious to drive on the small dirt roads of India all the way to Nepal. And then we stayed for two and a half months in a village in west Nepal: a very remote village. That was also a very deep and beautiful experience.

Then we went back to Israel and had our first daughter Osher Shanti and returned to India in 2002. We went first to Rishikesh in north India near Ganga and Haridwar where we had an amazing time meditating every day in the Shivananada kutir. It was a very auspicious time and then we moved to Auroville in 2002. I think some of you know Auroville which is located in the north of the city called Pondicherry. It is an international community based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. We connected very much with the vision of Auroville, with the vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. And we decided to live there.

In 2003 we decided to start Sadhana Forest and Sadhana Forest is our expression of what we understood from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Many people, of course, understand different things. But that is what we understood. There are many-many aspects to it. If you look at it from the outside it’s a reforestation project, it is a water conservation project. But if you look deeply into it; it is an attempt to bring compassion to action. To bring compassion from the realm of thoughts and ideas to the realm of everyday life, to every aspect of life and not just one aspect of life. It is not like we will work with orphans but the rest is different. No, we are trying to round it up as much as we can. So to bring compassion into the building for which we built it from only natural local material that is coming from within twenty-five kilometres of Sadhana Forest. We tried to use a material that is harvested by hand. For instance, if we use stone we don't use stone that is harvested with explosives in the quarry but stone that is harvested traditionally with a chisel. So a lot of effort is done to ensure that every aspect of our life is compassionate. The food is 100% vegan so it is not extracted from animals in any way. We don't eat honey and milk and eggs and fish and meat.

We un-school our children. We don't send them to school and that is part of our compassion towards them if you know what I mean. (Laughs) But also to enable them to really learn because of curiosity, inner curiosity and not because any knowledge is enforced upon them in any way. When they ask us a question we answer them. But we answer very shortly because when they were small and if we answered them at length they would say I did not want to know all that lecture. I only wanted an answer to my concrete question. (Laughs). As adults, we really want to teach and that is a big problem. We bore them sometimes. So collaboration is another ideal of Sadhana Forest. We are trying to evoke collaboration and not competition. Competition comes out of scarcity. When you feel that you don't have enough you compete with someone else. There is only one gold medal so we all have to compete for it. We believe in abundance. We believe that there is enough for everybody. There is enough love, enough food, there is enough everything for everybody and there is no need for competition. There is a need for collaboration to make that abundance continue and flourish and that we all living our life happily and that is very difficult for volunteers to understand. When they come they immediately okay let us run, who runs faster. It is like who is winning, who is losing. And we say no-no, in Sadhana Forest there are no winners and losers, there are collaborators. Let us change that card game. Let us change that run to see how we can do it together and increase our capacity as a team rather than as individuals or teams competing against each other.

We believe in gift economy. So we are trying to give all our services for free and we live off the generosity of others but we also try to be a bit generous ourselves (Laughs) so it goes together. And it has been a very interesting and very difficult journey. We will be finishing sixteen years on 19th of December in a few days and those years have been full of struggle because we were trying to carve a new path. And when you are trying to carve a new path in a forest you get a lot of thorns; you get a lot of branches in your eyes; you are challenged. But that challenge has just increased our wish to make the path even deeper into the forest. To go even deeper into this exploration of something that is new, a human society that is new.

We had a cyclone in 2011. It devastated some of the Sadhana Forest and it was a huge blow for us. Many of our structures had fallen. And for us, it was like okay that experiment is over. We tried to build with natural materials and we got this cyclone and it destroyed a lot. And the next day we got hundreds and hundreds of phone calls, emails and Facebook messages. Our phones were ringing twenty-four hours a day where people were saying: I will leave my job now, I will come to rebuild it, I can take a loan of five hundred dollars and send to you. And we felt wow! We have to continue this even if not for ourselves but for all the people who want this place to exist.

In 2010, we started Sadhana Forest Haiti after the big earthquake in Haiti. I think most of you heard about it. Maybe the very young ones haven't but two hundred thousand people have been killed in one minute. This is not many times that it has happened in human history. It was very devastating. And a friend told us to start another Sadhana Forest in Haiti but we really did not know where Haiti was. (Laughs) And we did not know anyone there and just we went there and somehow managed to make it happen and now we are finishing nine and a half years of activities in Haiti. We planted more than a hundred and thousand trees. About seventy thousands of them are producing food now for a population of a town and we started a solar mill where we milled nuts of the trees. We planted a lot of nut trees called Maya Nut and we are milling them into the flour with solar energy. And our next plan for Haiti is to start a solar bakery where we would bake all these baked goods out of these nut flours.

In 2014, we started Sadhana Forest Kenya with the same ideas like vegan, ahimsa, gift economy, collaboration, un-schooling. The same exact framework. But in north Kenya creating long term plant-based food security for the Samburu people and with Samburu people and it has been amazing. This is an indigenous tribe that lives there. Their main food has been meat, milk and blood extracted from the veins of the animals and we are slowly introducing them to food forestry and it is going really well. We hope that this could be a solution for them to be more resilient because of very frequent droughts that they are getting like in many other places in the world. And there are so many places in the world where droughts are becoming so frequent that the concept of what food they are consuming has to change because the food that we use to eat will no longer be available. That food comes on the expense of the forest too much and we can see that with meat and milk now that we need to clear a huge amount of forest especially in Amazon but in other places as well in order to grow feed for all these animals, to produce the milk and the meat and it is becoming unsustainable. We are seeing this for twenty years but even the scientist have got up with it now and they understand the IPCC, the international panel for climate change understands that the world has to transition to a plant-based diet. So this has been our journey.

We have about one thousand volunteers here in Sadhana Forest India. Last year we had around thirty-seven thousand visitors. So people would come for a day. We have a lot of children, we have a Goshalawhere we have cows. We are not milking them, we are not of course eating them, we are just serving them. So when we show them the Goshalasome people ask us, okay you have cows, what do you do with them? And we ask them, “do you have friends”, and they say, “yes we do have friends”. We ask them, “what do you do with them? We hope you don't eat them or milk them. So you must do something fun with them. The same thing we do with cows.” Thank you very much.

Questions from the audience:

Question: I have a son who is just 10 years old now and he was going to school till the last year. But we are also trying to make him have experiences rather than just go to school and have a routine where he is not able to experience life the way he wants to. So I heard about Sadhana Forest and your attempt to un-school children. So how does that work like at the core of it for the kids for Auroville and what is the core philosophy of it? So if there are pointers you can give it to me as my relationship with my son is more important rather than things like that.

Aviram. Sure. Thank you so much. First of all, you are most welcome to Sadhana Forest with your son and to experience it directly. I think this would be the best and it is not that far. Regarding what un-schooling is, so un-schooling basically means that things or say the premises, the learning is happening because of the curiosity. Learning is not happening because of teaching but because somebody is curious to know something. Of course in a school, it is not possible to do that because in a school there are 30-40 kids in a class and you can wait for every one of them to be curious and everyone is curious about different things. But I am talking about a natural setting, in the setting of a family where most of us use to learn until the industrial revolution right. We are curious and we ask why do you do this, how do you do that and we are answered and that is the learning. So unschooling respects the child, respects the child's pace, the child's wish. And we assume that when a child is ready to learn something like reading and writing when they are ready to read and write, they will ask you how do I read and write. That means that there internal wiring is ready for that. Before that, they won't ask you. Maybe it will come at the age of five maybe it will come at the age of twelve maybe it will come at the age of eighteen but it will come at one point when they need it or say when they are interested in it and their brains are ready. But you have to see the children how free they are, how creative they are, how aware they are and I think that would be the best way to experience it. Thank you

Question:I have been reading about Sadhana Forest for a few years now. I wanted to know what are the basic things that one can learn or follow from Sadhana Forest to replicate your model in other places like for example I want to do it in Baroda how can I create a small Sadhana Forest here.

Aviram: I think Sadhana Forest is a vibration. It is not an organization. And you have to feel that vibration. The first step is like for example if you are going to buy an apartment you have to think is this a compassionate apartment. Was this built with compassion towards the area where it is located? Was it built with compassionate material? Whether the workers were treated well when they were constructing it? Were they safe? These are the questions that you hold when you are buying a car or you treat your children or you interact with someone on the street. This is Sadhana Forest and you can do that anywhere in the world. The practical things that we are doing like building from natural materials or planting forest might not be relevant to your life in a certain time but the vibration is definitely very relevant and I think it could be implemented by anyone. And please come and stay with us and we can also discuss more what can we technical elements that can be implemented maybe here or maybe even together.

Question: When you went to Sadhana Forest what was the population around or how many have come in or how have you created this. Just give us a brief idea.

Aviram: We moved to this land on 19th December 2003 and the population at that time increased from zero to three. My wife, my daughter was three years old and myself. We thought that would be sort of the last increase for many years because people told us that a place like this which is 100% vegan, no smoking, no drugs, no alcohol it will be a complete turnoff. Nobody would come. And that is what we assumed that would happen but five days later the first volunteer came and said that I heard that you are making this new community and I want to join and help you and more and more of them started coming to that extent that we now have more than a thousand people per year. So it all happened organically mostly by word of mouth. So people come to visit us and if they have a terrible experience they probably tell all their friends please don't go there, it’s no fun (laughs). But if they have a great experience which some of them obviously do so they say the opposite and it spreads and they come and they can just take their bags and come. They don't have to, I mean they can write to us an email and come but they don't have to. It is very spontaneous. There was a guy who came 11 years ago and the minimum stay was for two weeks for foreigners at that time and he argued with me that I want to stay only ten days because I want to have a second trip to India and I can't stay for fourteen days. I said that it is fourteen days or nothing. He stayed for nine years. (laughs). So you know plans change.

Question: What was the hardship you faced initially, you may not be having electricity or water or anything.

Aviram: Yes. We did not have electricity for, I think seven or eight months. So we used torches. We had hand pumps from the very first day. We did not miss anything. We lived on a bullock cart. We made a little thatched roof on that and we were super happy, believe me. Nothing was missed. I miss those days. That is the only thing we miss. There was such a feeling of excitement and pioneering and the people around us, the villagers around us were so excited. We did a huge puja together with hundreds of people and we had the most amazing organic pongal and it was a wonderful time.

Question: When you are talking about practising compassion what I am curious about is each one of us will have moments or situations when it gets difficult to practice compassion. So what are your such moments or situations and what do you do when you have difficulty practising compassion.

Aviram: Wow that is a strong last question! I have many of these moments. Many moments of difficulty and what I personally do is I step out of the situation. When I feel that I am cornered or when I am put in a situation where I am starting to be aware that I am losing compassion and I am not in my normal state then I say that listen I have to go for a few minutes. People think that I have to take a phone call or something. I go and introspect about, what is difficult for me with that person. What is it that it is reminding me? What is it that it is triggering in me that I am losing my compassion? And I meditate and ask my Gurus to support me in coming back to this situation with another state of mind. And mostly, I can do that and come to that situation and be compassionate and then later introspect deeper into this and try to fix that. So it is an ongoing practice and effort. It is not something that is done in a day. At least to me, it did not happen in a day.

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