Sunday, March 29, 2009

Finding Freedom In Forgiveness

I’m a bit of an NPR Junkie, and one of my favorite series I listen to is called This I Believe. This I Believe is a national media project that engages everyday people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their everyday lives. I’ve been following the series for quite some time now, but last week, I came across a story that really moved me - it’s called Finding Freedom In Forgiveness.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson -Cannino testified that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped her. Eleven years later, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime.

This story speaks to the healing power of forgiveness.

Although I haven’t heard many Kirtanis or Granthis speak about this topic much, Guru Sahib in fact has much to say about “Khima” (Forgiveness). As I’m starting to research and reflect on this concept through Gurbani, I came across this line that I immediately connected with. From Bhagat Kabeer Ji, page 1372:

jehaa lobh theh kaal hai jehaa khimaa theh aap 155
Where there is greed, there is death. Where there is forgiveness, there is God Himself.

Finding Freedom in Forgiveness is less than four minutes long and worth the listen. I would love to hear what others think of this audio essay and perhaps an experience of your own as you’ve discovered forgiveness on your own journey…

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Seva & I

I was nervous. It was my first day on the job as a crisis hotline volunteer. Although I had just completed weeks of rigorous training on how to handle all types of calls - from anxiety, to depression, domestic abuse, and the dreaded suicide - I was still a little uneasy.

I met my mentor for the evening, an elderly white woman who lived in a suburb not too far from me. We made small talk, then she turned to her Danielle Steel novel, and I started thumbing through my training manual - both of us awaiting the next call.

Almost immediately, the phone rang.

"This one's yours, kid," my mentor said.

I took one deep breath and picked up the phone. Apparently, there hadn't been one for months, but sure enough, my first call was a suicide. Even though we spent an extensive amount of time covering this topic in training, I instantly froze up.

I placed the caller on speaker and my mentor immediately took over.
What happened over the next 30 minutes will stay etched in my memory for the rest of my life. The caller was severely depressed about a health condition he had been battling since he was a child and - to make a long story short - while on the call, he had the dangerous combination of the means and a motivation to end his life.

Under immense pressure, my mentor stayed completely calm and spoke to the caller as though he were an old friend. She listened, asked questions, empathized, and comforted. As she carefully listened to his experiences and hardship, she searched for bright spots in his life, which she quickly noted down, then shared those with him throughout the call - hanging on to whatever she could to keep him on the line and give him a sense of hope.

Midway through, she successfully disabled the caller's "means" and he agreed to speak with a therapist we referred him to, and to join a support group. Fifteen minutes later, she referred the caller to an organization he could volunteer with.

I was confused ... volunteer?

But my mentor and the caller together decided that assisting others with a similar condition would help him cope with his own illness. The caller then thanked her for helping him and he agreed to call back the next day.

Then they both hung up.

My mentor looked at me with a half-smile and gave that "whew!" gesture as she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, and returned to her book.

To her, this was "just another call." To me, it was one of the greatest acts of love I had ever witnessed.

The caller was prepared to end his life - but through genuine love and compassion, not only did she convince him not to, but she motivated him to seek further help, and inspired him to volunteer, so he could give back to others.

How amazing!

I know in Sikhi we don't believe in "angels", but I do believe Waheguru imparts His will through His creation. It reminded me of a line in a Shabad I once learned:

agan saagar booddath sansaaraa, nanak baah pakker sathigur nisathaaraa
The world is drowning in the ocean of fire; O Nanak, holding me by the arm, the True Guru has saved me.

That night on the crisis hotline, I watched this metaphor come to life.
And this whole experience made me reflect on "seva."

In my understanding, seva, in the context of gurbani, has two necessary elements - complete selflessness and a connection with the Divine.

Although I've done many acts of service, I often wondered if I've ever done seva. Have I ever actually done something for someone else, where there was absolutely no haumai, no "I?"

Over the years, I've organized several events and projects as a volunteer, but I do get stressed out and frustrated when things don't go as planned. So, is this still seva?

And even though I am cognizant of it, and make an effort to be "selfless," sometimes my ego has a way of sneaking up on me. Some may say I'm being too hard on myself and too idealistic. But, there is no "wrong way" of doing Seva, right?

I agree that one should do as many acts of service as possible, regardless of the motivation - but I believe that seva, in the way the Guru describes it, is something more.

And it can be truly selfless.

When I read the story of Bhagat Puran Singh, I don't think he saw a distinction between Piara and himself. There was no "I."

These ruminations on seva have changed the way I approach volunteering. For one, I will henceforth try to choose the work that "needs to be done," rather than the work that "I want to do." Secondly, I will seek volunteer opportunities in places and environments that are different for me, that will challenge me, and take me outside of my comfort zone.

As for experiencing truly "selfless" seva, this is where the other element comes in to play - simran. I believe that, through recitation and reflection on Akaal Purakh's Name, the barrier between myself and those I may help will dissolve. Through simran - acts of service, love and compassion will become part of my character and not something I consciously think about. The "I" will disappear.

But until I reach that stage - like anything else, I must practice.
Practice simran, so that it will inspire seva - and practice seva so that it will inspire simran. I must take advantage of every opportunity for seva. Not only because it is my duty as a Sikh, not only for the good it may serve, but from what I can learn from the "angels" I meet along the way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What We Do

I'm very lucky to have been involved in Sikh Gurmat camps for most of my life - as a camper, counselor, and administrator. Along the way, I've collected many stories. My friends have always told me I should document them. So here's another addition to the series I call "Camp Stories." Please comment with your own story too...

Camp Story #5: What We Do

Okay, I'm going to take a break with the camp stories for a while, but I thought I'd leave you with a good one. I'm cheating though...this wasn't actually from a camp, but a Sikh history class I taught many years back at the local Gurdwara. My group of kids were between ages 6 and 8.

On the last day of class before Summer break, I gave the kids a test covering everything they learned during the year. The kids were nervous, but they all did a great job and finished ahead of time. Since I couldn’t let them out too early, I gave them a quick exercise to do. In addition to Sikh history, we covered a lot of Gurmat - so I decided to ask them a simple question - the first thing that came to my mind, "What do Sikhs do?"

They all started writing their answers and one by one they handed me their paper and were dismissed from class. As I waited for the next student to hand in their paper, I started thumbing through the ones I had already received. Here's what some of them said:

"A Sikh is someone who does Kirtan"
"A Sikh is someone who listens to their parents"
"A Sikh is someone who goes to Gurdwara"
"A Sikh is someone who treats others nicely"
"A Sikh is someone who keeps their hair"

I was so happy with all these great answers. Finally, the last student came up to me and handed in her paper. I quickly took a glance at what she said and it was one of the funniest things I had ever read. I fought hard to hold it in, but as soon as she walked out, I exploded in laughter until it hurt!

I have a folder at home with all the student's papers from classes and camps I've taught at. And recently, I came across the very paper this student gave me so many years ago. And when I opened it up, it was just as funny as when I first read it. There it was in perfect handwriting…

"A Sikh is someone who does pot"

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Turn To The Guru

I'm very lucky to have been involved in Sikh Gurmat camps for most of my life - as a camper, counselor, and administrator. Along the way, I've collected many stories. My friends have always told me I should document them. So here's another addition to the series I call "Camp Stories." Please comment with your own story too...

Camp Story #4: Turn To The Guru

We were lucky to have many parents join us at camp to share in the experience. Overall, it was great to have parents learn alongside their children, but it did open us up for some interesting situations…

I left our evening Divan early one night to check-in with the Kitchen crew on dinner preparations. Right as I exited the Divaan hall, one of the mothers followed me outside crying hysterically. She was terrified and could barely make out her words, but she explained to me that she did not see her son sitting in his group. She looked at all the other groups in the Divaan hall and didn’t see him there either. She sent her other son in to the bathroom and his cabin, but still he was nowhere to be found. This is a camp director's worse nightmare…a missing kid. I ran in to the Divaan hall and quickly scanned all the groups on the floor, and sure enough, he wasn't there. I tried to stay calm, but quickly got the word out to the other counselors. This was his first time at camp and he was a quiet kid, so not everyone remembered when they saw him last. Immediately, about ten of us counselors searched the campsite - every cabin, every bathroom, every classroom, every field, and even the lakeside. We even sent a couple canoes out on the lake, as the missing kid's brother couldn’t remember if he had seen him after we went canoeing before Divaan. We alerted the camp authorities, and after 30 minutes of searching…I decided to make the dreaded call to the Police. This entire time the poor mother was so distraught - she could hardly keep herself standing. Right as I took out my cell phone to make the call, the missing boy appeared - walking right out of the Divaan hall. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The boy's mother rushed over to him and we were all elated. In unison, several of us counselors asked him, "Where were you?" He said, "I was sitting behind the Guru Granth Sahib, doing Chaur Sahib seva."

Yes…although I checked all the children organized by groups in the Sangat, I never actually checked behind the Guru Granth Sahib…(and in my defense, neither did the mother or the other counselors!)

But in the end, it did teach us all a valuable lesson...

Whenever you face adversity, always turn to the Guru…first :)