The Sri Aurobindo Press

(sriaurobindosociety.org.in)

Yesterday I went to check out the Sri Aurobindo printing press with Sushanto. I cycle past it every day, and am always curious to discover the technical secrets of book publishing. The society produces compilations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mothers’ writings, as well as books on spirituality, education, and self-discovery. The books printed here get sent to the Sri Aurobindo centers all over the country and around the world, in dozens of languages. Once the society’s new website is launched, their products will soon be sold online. The day I came they were working on next year’s spiritual diary.

(sriaurobindosociety.org.in)

The tour did not disappoint. I saw the many steps it takes to make a beautiful book. I saw the metal plates that are created to make each folio, the machines that stitch the folios together, fold the sheets perfectly, and the one manned by three people that puts the glue and cover on the spine. For hardcover books, the ashram makes beautiful handmade paper, which I am told is a bit of a chore to make, especially in such large quantities and sizes.

I saw the giant Heidelberg machine, a German printing press that has been at the ashram for decades. Sushanto told me that once the machine was broken. A worker came to unlock the building in the morning, and noticed in the corner of his eye saw some small gnomes all around it. When he looked again they were gone. The gnomes were its caretakers, coming to fix the broken machine. I wonder if they spoke Deutsch?

A Heidelberg machine

 

Auro Media for Social Change

I am part of the Auro Media for Social Change team here, which just started in March 2011. This team is a new branch of Auro Media, which does all the communications work for the Sri Aurobindo Society. The mission of Auro Media for Social Change is to help create and facilitate media that is produced by the people, for the people. Recently they worked with the village development project SARVAM to start a village newspaper there.

There is so much media coming into the homes of Indians. Every home in the Tamil Nadu villages has a radio and a TV (with cable). In 2006, politicians gave out free electronics in exchange for votes.Even if I could get past the idea of buying votes, it still makes my blood boil to think about how TV is used as a cultural control device, a major distracter that makes people lethargic and compliant, rather than independent and enlightened. Tamil Nadu actually decided to make this popular tactic illegal in March 2011. So there’s hope, but of course this policy was motivated to curtail corrupt elections, not to stop people from watching TV.

(indiavision.com)

Indians watch HBO, CNN; all foreign movies and tv from the major media moguls, full of light-skinned people who live tv-perfect lives that usually have nothing to do with the subcontinent. The blog Media and People shows the village-produced newspaper, Gramam Pudiya Udayam, on the right sidebar. Take a look at it, it’s pretty cool.

Venus and I also just finished the second monthly edition of the newly created newsletter Media and Lives. This month’s theme was ‘Blogs: the Power of Us.’ (I swear this topic was Venus’ idea). Blogs have been a powerful tool for providing grassroots information and for activist organizing around the world, but are just beginning in India.  I wrote an article about how to start a blog. Since I have a full two months of blogging experience, I’m pretty much an expert. 🙂 Here is the link to download the newsletter: Media and Lives-Blogs-Aug 2011

Sun Salutations and Tilaka Powder

Every day I get up at 5:30 am and go to yoga on the beach office rooftop from 6-7. Then breakfast at the dining hall, visit the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and go to work around 9 am. (The samadhi is their burial shrine, where followers go to pray or meditate. August 15th is Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, so thousands of people from all over the world will come to the samadhi.)

Yoga is with my friend and colleague Kaushal, who is a great teacher. We do our sun salutations facing the ocean, literally greeting the sun rise over the ocean. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to start my day. I took a hatha yoga class freshman year at UO, but many terms of budget hearings instead of gym visits has rendered me very inflexible. I am excited to get my physical body back into shape.  Along with my mind and heart, it feels good to make my body stronger.

Kaushal=way more flexible than me!

For some reason, hundreds of giant dragonflies are always buzzing over our heads. Where do they come from? What do they eat? And most importantly, what do they want from us?

I am NOT a natural morning person, and I am eager to change my natural sleep patterns. When I do get up early, I feel very content and usually have a very productive day. That is, if I get enough sleep, which means in bed by 9 or 10 pm. It gets dark here around 7, so that’s not too hard.

This morning after breakfast I went to the the Ganesh temple with the elephant in front. The elephant’s name is Lakshmi and has been there since it was a baby. It is so cute but sometimes I feel bad for it. It isn’t very healthy for elephants to stand in one place so much, and once its foot was infected. One of the society’s architects, Tripte, has a father who works in leather goods. He made Lakshmi a set of giant shoes, so that his foot could heal.

photo by my friend Aishwarya

A nice man inside the temple taught me how to receive the blessing of red tilaka powder that is rubbed on your forehead. Right hand puts the rupee coin on the tray, waves over the oil lamp flame, left hand receives the powder from the priest, then the ring finger of your right hand places the powder on the forehead.

Me and our taxi driver petting a goat at Chidambaram, a massive temple, 75 km from Pondi. I’m wearing a blessing of white ash, another type of blessing powder. 

I went to the Chidamburam temple with Keri and Dan. (Photos posted soon)

Today I was self-conscious about wearing a blessing, because not many of my office colleagues go to temple in the mornings (or at least don’t receive blessings.) And Indian passerbys stared at me. Did I put it on wrong, or is it just very unusual to see a Westerner with a Hindu blessing walk around town? Will I offend anyone because I don’t identify as a Hindu? Is a temple visit contradictory to the ashram’s beliefs? But when I got to work, people just smiled very genuinely and said, “Oh, you went to the temple?” Like it was no thing, they were just happy that I am diving into it all.

Does this mean that I want to become a Hindu? No, I just appreciate the ritual of it. Back home church is where you go once a week on Sunday mornings. Here the temple is a daily place of community. Yet there is also no worship service, message, or personal relationships forged with the priests or religious leaders, at least not that I have yet observed. There is a lot of smoke chanting flowers incense statues. It’s pretty nuts.

Return to the Garden!

I got so engaged in my armageddonesque eco-talk that I forgot to explain my project.

Vijay asked me, “how often do you want to go? 2-3 times a week?” I had been thinking maybe once a week, but okay sure! I’m happier and healthier when I stay busy, so I think it will be good for me. As of now I pretty much at the beach office all the time. It’s beautiful here, but I would more than welcome a chance to balance that time with meaningful excursions to the farm.

Vijay said that the Sri Aurobindo Society would like to start documenting the work of the organic farm, and would I like to help with that? Umm, YES! I’ll be developing content that will become a booklet and go on the website. I might revamp the current training they have too. The goal is to go over the specific techniques used, but to also convey the systems of natural farming. At the Sri Aurobindo Society, agriculture is spiritual. How cool is that?

Farm coordinator Bhavuram = documentation averse

Natural farming” is the new term used to define holistic farming practices, where all inputs matter. Organic farming connotes a response to inorganic farming. Natural farming stands alone. It asks where does the water and fertilizer come from? I believe it is similar to the values of permaculture.

Here the farm stores rainwater, mixing it with cow dung and urine to make a super-powered mixture for the crops. All inputs come from the farm itself.

Food gardens are very important to me.  When I took the Urban Farm class at UO, it was by far my favorite class. Whenever people from out of town visited, I always took them to see the beautiful two-acre farm, tucked behind the major thoroughfare by campus. Come to think of it, I took unacquainted UO students too. When I lived at the Campbell Club I loved helping out at our lovely community garden plot by the river.

My lovely friend Grace, with the Campbell Club tomatoes and strawberries

I have always been fascinated by the plant life cycle. Growth, pollination, fruiting, consumption, then the passing of food that returns to the soil to fertilize the next generation. What is a more beautifully perfect system than that?   Just like humans have a desire to sacrifice and serve others, plants also have an innate wish to give their produce.

The Mother writes about this. When she was in her garden she would never know witch flower to pluck, not wanting to cause harm to some while sparing the others. She sat and concentrated for a bit and started to hear which flowers were calling to be plucked. She went to the vegetable garden and the same thing happened. Some would say “no, no no”, and then a vegetable would call to her, “pick me! I am ready!” Animals do the same. When a cheetah catches a zebra, it struggles for a bit, but there is a moment when it knows it cannot escape and it relaxes and gives itself to the cheetah, to the cycle of the natural world.

Yesterday I had a revelation that food gardens are my sacred places. They have such pure intentions. When I go into temples or cathedrals, I appreciate the fine architecture but I do not feel anything deep inside that connects me to the walls or high ceilings. In a garden, I feel calm yet vibrant, alive and connected. Barefoot as much as possible.

On top of being a meaningful project for the society, I think the garden has many truths to teach me.

Unsettling Survival

“The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in the exact measure that we are capable of receiving them.” –Helen Keller

I had a check-in meeting with Vijaybai yesterday, and I have been given a very exciting new project. But I will start at the beginning.

An hour earlier I had been meeting with Shivakumar, and he was answering my many questions on spirituality. We were talking about how each culture has a unique capacity in the physical, emotional, and mental bodies. For example, the culture of England and France were very developed in technology, the physical capacities of force. When they came to North America, the Native Americans were more developed spiritually, something that the foreign invaders would not have even noticed, let alone valued.

Shivakumar told me I had to read a letter from Chief Seattle in a book called Whispers of Nature, edited by Vijaybai.

So then an hour later, I had my meeting with Vijaybai. I told him that I wanted to go again to the organic garden to experience and learn more of what it has to offer.  We started talking about the importance of holistic farming, and he said, “let me give you something to read.” What book did he pull out but the Whispers of Nature! Within an hour, I had received two copies of this book from two of the wisest people I know. Weird, huh? I think this book must have been intensely trying to find me.

In 1854, the US federal government wanted to buy a large area of land in exchange for a promised ‘reservation’ for the people to live on. Chief Seattle has some beautiful advice and words of warning for the white man to remember our relation to the land. Chief Seattle asks, “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?…All things share the same breath.”

I don’t necessarily think that owning land is inherently bad, but if it must be so then we should take a serious look at how we treat our land that we “own.” Is it necessary to cut down every tree on the lot to build our house? Where will our water and electricity come from? Do we really need to build a pool, or to clear the brush for manicured lawns? Could we even build living communities that share spaces, such as the bathroom and kitchen, so that we don’t all have to build new houses?

Chief Seattle also comments on the limited understanding of the white man in spiritual and religious matters. Europeans had the uncanny ability to ignore the intent behind the spiritual views, focusing only on the material manifestations of religion.  Any belief system that didn’t have monumental structures or texts was automatically considered barbaric. Didn’t anyone understand that religion is a cultural construct? That man is so desperate to label and categorize right and wrong, bad and good, that he will build walls of morality around him to pretend he understands how to live? But I digress…

Chief Settle issues a warning to the white man:

“We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover-our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own the land, but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal to the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The white too shall pass…but in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us…The buffalo are all slaughtered…the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.”

We are now in the age of survival. But God is nothing if not full of grace. So too is the earth. We can fix the damage if we start fixing ourselves.

Shelter

A few days ago I moved from the Good Guesthouse to a house for more long term stays, called “Shelter.” It’s only a quick bike ride to the beach office and a block from the ocean. I have my own room, and there is a small kitchen so I can cook whenever I want. There is even a garden. My bedroom is fully furnished, although the mattress is really thin. My back has been a bit sore, but I’ve decided to overcome the pain. Shivakumar says “If it’s not the spine that is hurting then you’ll be fine. Muscles are like rebellious children.” I live with Chandani (which means moonlight) who manages the beach office library, and Krishna, a graphic artist for on the media team. Both of them have lived there for several years at least and are very nice.

Today Chandani asked me, “you are not feeling boring?” (She meant bored, of course. A few Americans in the past have had some struggles with the slower pace of life in Pondi.)

“No,” I said, “I’m great.” And I meant it.

My bedroom

the bathroom sink (spacious!)

the kitchen

The Mother

The Mother was born Mirrha Alfassa in Paris, 1878. She studied fine art in college. The Mother was aware of her spiritual consciousness even as a child.

cuuute

She received visions from one who she called Krishna.  When she traveled to Pondi in 1914, she met Sri Aurobindo and recognized him as the “Krishna of her visions.” She spent a few years in Japan before returning to Pondicherry to continue her yoga practice at age 42. She was married, but left her husband to stay in India. She became Sri Aurobindo’s best student and closest collaborator. When Sri Aurobindo went into seclusion to continue his work of consciousness, she was the only one he would let into his chamber. She helped secure housing and coordinate meals for the growing number of disciples that were coming to Pondicherry. In 1943 she started the ashram school, an experiment in integral education, which then grew to be the International Center of Education, inaugurated in 1952. At age 90 she started Auroville, an idyllic utopian town of peace, “dedicated to human unity.”

The Mother believed in the importance of physical exercise as a tenet of a spiritual lifestyle. She played tennis everyday (and won often!) until she was 83. Two dozen followers over 80 years ago has turned into into today’s diverse ashram community of 1,500 members. More to come on the Mother.

          Citations from the “Visitor’s Guide to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram”

An Organic Paradise

July 22, 2011

Today was an epic day.  This morning a taxi ride took us to the jungle of the ashram’s organic farm, where they produce all the fruits and vegetables to feed 1,500 people a day. They even grow all of the rice for the ashram. The only exception is the wheat for baking bread, as wheat only grows in North India.

Bug spray is a must!

Dan, our guide Deberatu in the center, and the organic farm director, Bhavaram on the right

One of our guides is a tall, lanky gentleman named Debabrata, which his mother gave him because it means “divine mission.” He has lived at the ashram for 35 years. He used to be a follower of Vivekenanda, but when he was 21 he discovered the Mother. It’s a great story, I’ll post about it later.

The fragrant champa flower, which has over 200 varieties. The other day I bought some locally made champa soap and it smells up the whole bathroom. 

The farm is not like our mono-cultured crops, all the plants in perfect rows. The farm mirrors how plants grow in nature, all the plants mixed up. The farm workers know where all the plants are, they are clearly identifiable and cannot get misplaced. Some crops are grown alongside other plants that promote pollination. This model is much healthier for the plants, and less work for the humans. They use the in situ composting technique, which means that vegetable debris is thrown directly into the garden beds, instead of being left to decompose in a pile first. Soil is layered with vegetable matter, so it can fertilize directly in the beds.

 In situ composting: Potato plants with hibiscus flowers layered on beds

The farm also has a medicinal herb garden, for teaching about the healing  power of plants.

This herb’s leaves are used  to heal any mouth sores and also doubles as a mouth freshener! 

Cinnamon! Smells like Christmas…

Basil, which looks different than Oregon basil but tastes similar

Our tour only took us through a tiny bit of the 42 acres, yet we saw dozens of different crops. Keri and I took a million photos!

Henna! The root of the henna plant is used to cure jaundice, the leaves are used to treat kidney stones when combined with wild radish. The fruit is dried and ground up to make red hair dye. What a helpful plant…

This leaf is ground up to make black hair dye. I didn’t catch the name of it. 

The hibiscus flower is made into a syrup, which has a cooling effect. The flower is also combined with coconut oil and used as a hair conditioner treatment. 

Guavas are like apples here, I eat them everyday. It’s wonderful. 

The Callotropis flower. The milk is poisonous, but it is used to cure migraines. One must use a needle to prick the temple and release pressure, and then rub the milk on the temples. The plant is also rich in potassium, and so is used in the beds as compost to balance out the nitrogen in the soil. 

The pineapple plant. Most people think they grow on trees, when in fact they are actually a tiny shrub. 

Palm fruit, which has a high sugar content. The fruit is mixed with cow urine and used as a fertilizer.

At the end of our tour we were given a feast of raw coconut, mango, papaya.  The coconut water is delicious, which we drank through all natural straws made from papaya leaves. After we finished the liquid they machete’ed the coconuts open and we ate the soft meat with spoons. Fully grown coconuts soak up all their water inside and the meat gets thicker and tougher. We had juice all over everywhere. Delicieuse! Debabrata said they don’t get many visitors, so they love to show people around. Such nice people.

Good Vibrations

As we have discussed, values cannot be taught, only nurtured. Children need teachers who are strong, loving, and patient. Children are sponges. They will absorb not just our language and physical attributes but our emotional vibrations that we send out to them. Our inner insight speaks to inner insight of the child. Every thought and emotion creates a vibration, either negative or positive.  Emotional vibrations are very powerful. Positive vibrations have the power to cure cancer. Nothing is impossible.

Here is a famous Indian illustration of this idea:

A mother approaches an Indian spiritual master, in need of help. “My son eats sweets indiscriminately. Can you advise him to not eat so many sweets?” The spiritual master said, “Come back in a week and I will help you.” The mother came back a week later, but the spiritual master said, “please, come back in a week and I will help you.” The mother huffed but went away. A week later the mother came back, and the spiritual master again told her to come back in a week. Very frustrated by this point, a week later the mother brought her son to the spiritual master. The spiritual master talked gently to the boy, telling him that he should eat sweets moderately, only every few days.  The mother asked angrily, “Why did you wait so long to tell him?” The spiritual master replied, “I myself like sweets very much. I set out to conquer the desire in me.  Children do not communicate by words alone.”

So you can see that teachers who teach with angry or frustrated hearts make their classrooms angry and frustrated too. Hopefully we have all experienced the being in a classroom that is filled with joy because the teacher is joyful and loving. At the Society’s school, if a teacher is emotionally unwell then they do not come to school that day.  Mental health days, institutionalized. Neato!

Dan, who is a professor in special education, brought up the idea of not just negative and positive vibrations but neutral vibrations too. Neutral vibrations come from things like computers, instruments, TV, and pets.  Autistic children are often drawn to machines. Autistic children like spending time with neutral vibrations because they are patient and comfortingly predictable to the child. Machines do not try and tell the child to go to bed, to eat or to perform certain social behaviors differently. Although they love their child, parents can get caught in a vicious cycle of sending the child negative vibrations, out of frustration, sadness, impatience, etc. How do we get autistic children to see both machines and humans positively? Integrative education would say that the parent and child, through very different techniques, need to develop their emotional body.  In the US, a 2009 study put the rate of autism in children at 1 in 100 children. Practices like this are critical to refining and reforming our curriculum and training in special education.

Our goal should be to send out positive vibrations to all with whom we interact. This of course extends to not just children but every living thing we come into contact with.

Leave No Body Behind

Integral Education

Integral education is the philosophy and practice of teaching children holistically. It was pioneered by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. The Mother took Sri Aurobindo’s philosophies and brilliantly turned them into an educational structure and curriculum. This curriculum is what is used at the Sri Aurobindo Society International Center of Education.

 We received a presentation about integral education from Shivakumar, the society’s master logistician and society director Vijaybai’s right hand person.

Shivakumar pointing The Way

This post is a long one, but please read it, as these ideas have deeply inspired me. This philosophy would revolutionize the way we teach our children, and thus the way we develop our citizens who will shape our collective future. There has to be a way to incorporate some of these ideas into the mainstream in a cost-effective way…But in my excitement I’m getting ahead of myself.

Integral education is the idea that children should be taught more than how to read and write, add and subtract. They should be taught to develop their character and their physical selves in conjunction with their intellectual growth.

What follows are the basic principles of integral education.

There are four life stages: birth, growth, decay, and death/return.*  We cannot control when or where we are born or when we die, but we can influence the stages of growth and decay. The moment we stop growing, we begin the stage of decay. All education should be focused on supporting growth.

*Return is included in death because when we are born we have come from somewhere, and we do not leave when we die, only go onto something else.

All beings have an innate knowledge of how to grow and decay. How does a plant know when to sprout? They do not go to school to grow leaves and roots. Plants have an inbuilt knowledge. All a plant needs is a little protection in the early stages of its life. Who taught a fish to swim? Or a peacock to dance when it rains? Don’t you think that the same inbuilt knowledge lies in more developed beings like humans?

Shivakumar’s sketches, with the Mother watching over us in the background

Three Bodies

Now integral education says that we all have not one but three bodies. First, there is the physical body, which needs proper food and exercise to grow. Second, we have a mental body, which needs intellectual stimulation, new facts, skills, ideas, and puzzles to be developed. And thirdly, we have the emotional, or vital, body. What type of food does the emotional body need to grow healthily? A child needs love, security, and to feel valued to have a healthy emotional being. Everything we teach our children st not just be stimulating intellectually, but it must be taught with a loving heart.

The emotional body has certain qualities, or values. These are values like courage, truthfulness, sincerity, love, compassion, etc.  Just like physical exercises, these qualities need to be developed and exercised. By growing the positive qualities in oneself, the negative ones automatically decay. If we foster compassion in a child, aggression naturally fades away. But how do we put emotional education into practice? Emotions cannot be taught, right? Students must be prompted to look within themselves and learn to analyze their emotions through experiences.

For example, two boys who are friends get in a fight on the playground. The teacher is nearby but does not stop them. One of the boys runs up to the teacher crying and complaining. Instead of reprimanding the boy about how it is bad to punch people, the teacher asked,

“How do you feel?”

“Terrible!” he said.

The teacher asked, “Well what do you want to do?”

“He is my best friend, I don’t want to fight! I want to be friends again!”

The teacher pulled two candies out of her pocket and said,

“Here, then go and do it.”

With the teacher’s words of encouragement, that is what the boy did. Reprimand and timeouts only promote the recognition of negative emotions and behavior.  This mentality teaches a child how to listen to his heart.

The emotional body is so important because it has a major influence on the physical and the mental body. We can clearly see that we have three bodies when we have to make tough decisions, and our three bodies compete against each other. Has your physical body ever kept you up late at night because your heart and your logical mind are split in two different places? This is a negative phenomenon to avoid. Ideally, integral education teaches how to develop and control each body will integrating them together as one.

In the West, we value the mind and the physical body, but we do not nurture the emotional body. We do not think about what food it needs beyond some surface pleasures of art, beauty, and music. The emotional body is what should guide us and will push us to treat each other with love and respect. It is called the vital emotional body for a reason, without it we would not be human. In India the mind is considered imperfect, as it has many limitations. It can incorrectly interpret what comes out of the soul, trying to squeeze a vibration through the lens of logic. A complete person is one who has a brilliant mind, a strong body, and a giant heart. This is the aim of integral education.

Practical Implementation

But how do we put these theories into practice? How does a teacher write a curriculum based on this model?

Schools need to be clean and beautiful. Teachers should be strong and loving. Surround students with positive and beautiful sights, sounds, and vibrations, and the child will be nurtured properly. When the child goes into the outside world and encounters negative vibrations, pollution, alcoholism, or racism, the child will recognize these things as negative.

The curriculum is modeled after the stages of a child’s development. This first stage is physical development, years 0-5. When a child is born, the ears are the first thing to open up, then the eyes. Thus, sensory training is done to develop each sense, one by one. The physiology of eating, sleeping and going to the toilet also must be taught. Some aspects of the emotional body are taught, but they are still growing.  Children at this stage are filled with positive vibrations; they love to laugh, be loud, and they can respond very well emotionally to stories.

The second stage takes place typically between the ages of 7 and 14, and is focused on emotional development. Children must continue to be fed with positive emotions. Logic does not work, nor rational thoughts. Children at this age period are rebellious. If you tell them not to do something they will do it. Thus, teaching should be done through an emotional lens. Bullying is wrong because it makes one feel bad. Lying is bad because it hurts oneself. Teachers should ask students “how do you feel?” Values cannot be taught, only nurtured and modeled.

Onwards, more priority can be given to the the intellectual body, in balance with physical activity and emotional development. Students should be given the knowledge that they can handle. Teaching about WWII or the current slave trade should be done only if the child can handle it emotionally. You would not give a child a 1,000 kilogram to lift on her shoulders, but a kilogram or half a kilogram, she can do it.

So there you have it folks. Phew. The idea of integral education can also be used for management and other leadership.

For further reading check out:

Integral Education: A Foundation for Our Future (by Partho)

Integral Management (Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Integral Management)

Integral Education: in practice at the ashram

http://www.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/activity/educate.htm#safier