Day 2: Dharma Works

Sep 9, 2005

"Guys, we leave for Goa after b'fast tomorrow morning. Collect ur laundry, pack and meet outside the dining hall. We leave at 7:00AM sharp."

That was the introduction to a page-long note that was anonymously circulated on day 2 of this college meditation course. One of our "CID" volunteers -- cop in disguise :) -- impounded this note that he saw a student reading outside his residence footsteps.

My guess is that this kind of silly behavior has never ever been seen on this meditation campus. But this is an unusual case. The principal of this school "gently coerced" at least 20% of the class into attending this course, and whenever those students come face to face with their bottled-up negativity, all they can think about is how they were compelled to do this. For precisely this reason, dharma always has to be received with a two-folded-hands request; you simply can't ram dharma down someone's throat.

Whatever the cause, our job now is to deal with the ramifications.

The note also timidly said, "All those agreed to the plan, assemble outside laundry area after dining tonight, 5:30-5:45PM. No words will be exchanged. This is just to understand how many people are going. If there are less than 15 people, the plans stand cancelled. We disperse at 5:45PM. Don't be late."

When we first read this note, we started laughing. I mean, why go through these elaborate plans to leave? Just walk out. If you don't care to purify your mind, feel free to leave anytime. But, of course, the students are all afraid of the consequences from their principal and they want to take refuge in numbers.

We aren't sure whether we should disperse the group at 5:30PM and not let them see their full strength, if they have it, or if we should just take it head on. Rather than playing games with them, we decide to play it straight. Let 'em do what they want and we'll see where nature takes this situation.

Two of us stay in the main office. Everyone is told to be on alert, because our primary purpose is to make sure none of the other almost 600 meditators on the campus are disturbed by the behavior of this handful.

Sure enough, by 5:45PM, about 20 hostile twenty-somethings crowd into the course office. With Ashit-ji, I am ready in the course office. Ashit-ji, a senior assistant teacher of Vipassana meditation, is quite a remarkable personality and is incidentally, the perfect fit for handling such a stressful situation. After graduating from IIT-Delhi, he did his Masters in the US, worked for a few years, and eventually dedicated his life to understanding the principles of nature (ie. "dharma"). Super smart yet super humble, always calm yet unflinching in his principles, sincerely open to all views yet deeply commited to his experience of Truth. He's a real enigma that can't be boxed into one category yet he can neatly fold himself into any context. It's hard to describe his personality, but it's quite admirable. No one can tell that he's 48 years old, and in this course, everyone refers to him as the "green eyed coordinator".

So me and the green-eyed one divide and conquer. He takes half and I take the other half. People have all kinds of issues: "This is great but our principal forced us, so I want to leave." "I just can't take this anymore. I'm too young to do this kind of work." "You know, the guy in front of me smells really bad." "My back is killing me." "I have so many more important things to do, like studying for job interviews, than watching my respiration." "Why don't they turn on the fans during meditation?" We address all their concerns, with the primary goal of making sure they don't leave with a block against meditation and spirituality. They all understand and most of them say that they'd like to try meditation again at a later point, when they're ready on their own.

Right when we give 'em all permission to leave, three of them abruptly change their minds and stay back.

For the remaining 17 students, we give them 20 minutes in between the meditation hours to silently go to their rooms, pack-up and meet us at the front office (outside the meditation campus). All of them are thrilled, as if they have just been released from prison. :) Everyone turns on their mobile phones and starts calling up their significant others, friends and parents. Two of them even go out to grab a bite to eat (there is no dinner for students on this campus).

At about 7:30PM, the students are ready to leave after our amicable goodbyes. But then, one of the guys doesn't have his valuables -- his wallet and cell phone. The key to "valuables" is with a woman who is in meditation till 8:30PM, so they are stuck waiting. While they wait, we informally chat about life and morality. Now, it was no longer one versus another; instead it was two human beings sharing thoughts. The veils had been lifted.

We ask them their experience of the last two days and they open up with all kinds of problems. Two years back, one of them was about to drown with another friend and he had a choice either to save himself or his friend; his friend died. Another's Dad passed away and he has been trying to work with his mom in figuring out their life. Another comes from a very poor background and just wants to get rich so his parents never have to worry. Yet another was wondering why he can't keep any friends for a long time. Most of them had serious problems, but their approach was -- "Look, I have worked a couple of years to cover up these problems and fill my life with other things so I don't have think about these things. These two days brought it all out and right now, I needed to focus on getting a job and not these things."

Ah, one can't help but feel sorry for them. Growing up in this millennium can be such an ordeal. You have to live up to the mask put on by yourself, the projected images of your family and friends, and cultural baggage of society at large. Most youth aren't revolutionary enough to realize their innate power to say "game over". As a result, their whole life is constrained in the prison of their fears and hopes. Yet the irony of the whole situation is that the youth are most open and impressionable. If you speak sincerely with them, they are willing to be transformed almost immediately.

By the time the lady with the "valuables" key comes, we are all in deep, small-group conversations. Then, an old grandmotherly lady, also a senior meditation teacher, requests permission to speak to all of the students. None of them are really interested but some of them oblige her due to her age. Right then, the director of the college calls just as a routine check-up. He is furious to learn of the plans of these 17 students; he blatantly informs them that they will be expelled from college if they return. Expelled.

Everyone is scared. The grandmother is still talking to them, when yet another phone call from a "senior" at their college comes through. He recommends that they stick with the course because their director is in a bad mood and if they get expelled, not only will they lose their valuable admission here but they won't be allowed to enter another business school elsewhere.

And everyone at the meditation center here is in full agreement that such a scenario should never ever happen again. Fear simply can't be the motivation for meditation. In fact, fear shouldn't be the motivation for anything.

Four out of the seventeen, have a change of heart all of a sudden. Why? "Because of what the grandmotherly woman said," they told us. But none of us are that naive. We tell them that no one is allowed back in the course once they have decided to leave. All of them fall silent, with this remorseful face. They go and huddle for about twenty minutes, and so do we.

It's been a long day. It's past 9PM. Everyone else on the campus is about to hit the sack but our night is still young.

Some senior teachers and Ashit-ji decide to interview each of them to see if they should be given a second chance. Our interviews go on till 1AM. At some point, we just feel sorry for them but yet with a firm hand, we give 'em a chance with proper scolding and warnings. Some of these guys were clearly pranksters with discipline issues but we still withheld our judgments and gave 'em a chance. They were asked then to turn in their mobiles, books and cigarettes (two of them were heavy smokers) and allowed back in with a stern, final warning.

By 3AM, we were all physically exhausted. Although the students probably didn't realize it, the half a dozen of us involved in handling the situation gave so much of our time, heart, mind and spirit. It was truly a genuine wish that these students come out of their miseries that were so evident. Not only did we work to help them through their mental blocks and fears, we relayed the stupidity of this scenario to their director (who had promised to drive 8 hours to visit us the next morning).

I don't know how everyone else felt but for me, the situation was a constant reminder of the miserable state of the human condition. Always controlled by one force or another, we simply can't be free; liberation has been such a foreign concept that most think it to be impossible. The good news, though, is that nature is constantly pulling us in back to our core, back in harmony with the rhythm of life. I went to bed smiling at the serendipity of so many random yet perfectly timed events that allowed us to create a bridge of compassion with these students and somehow compelled them to stay the duration of the course.

It was a strange day for a serene meditation campus, but in the end, dharma works. :)

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