Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Perfect Flavor

The process to serve and be served sanctified food with love is called "honoring prasad" in the classical Vaishnava spiritual tradition. I personally consider it to be the culmination of culture and service. I learned this art in my studies in Mayapur, India, so when I helped direct The Radha Krishna Camp for Girls in Brazil, I decided to implement this system of honoring prasad for every single meal for six days.

I think I bit off a liiiiiittle more than I could chew. (No pun intended.)

I taught the girls that for every meal, everyone would sit on mats on the floor in rows. About four girls for each meal would be rotated through the list to be a server of prasad. Each meal, I would train the servers how to approach their fellow campers with each dish and silently and lovingly offer prasad. When all the girls in the camp were completely satisfied, the servers would settle into a short row and then the director of the serve-out (me) got to serve the servers.

On our third day after lunch had been served to the whole camp, I was all set to serve those who had served out. But several of the girls who had been serving lunch kept saying no, no, Bhakti lata sit down, sit down, we will serve you!

I insisted, "No, this is my privilege, this is my service to serve the servers," This was only the third day of camp, and I sensed that the girls were not ready to serve without further training and direction.

But they were so insistent to serve me. At last, I picked one girl, and one girl only - Annapurna -  to serve the servers.

I settled to the rattan mat along with the other servers and sighed with apprehension and curiosity.

Annapurna began to serve us. At one point, she surprised me – several minutes in she handed me a folded napkin. “What’s this?” I asked, shocked.

“It’s to wipe your mouth,” she replied. What? I had never taught her to give out napkins!

Annapurna served well. Nevertheless, I realized that she was simply not ready to serve the servers. None of the girls were ready, they simply needed more training, more experience.

When we had all finished our lunch, I gestured to Annapurna to please sit down.

I would serve her now - I would be the servant of the servant of the servant.

Throughout the process of serving prasad to Annapurna, a competitive urge flared in my heart - I would serve her even better than she had served me! The image kept flashing through my mind of the folded napkin she had placed beside my plate. Determined to outdo her, I brought Annapurna ice cubes for her water. She accepted gratefully. The irony of my lack of humility in being a servant had me laughing to myself and shaking my head.

Once Annapurna had finished lunch and she had pronounced that she was satisfied, an idea struck me. I gathered the other servers and we held a mini-meeting at the dining table.

"Okay girls, let us discuss Annapurna’s service," I announced once we were all gathered. "The goal of serving prasad is to be like salt - absolutely necessary and at the same time completely invisible. If we were to rate Annapurna in terms of her service being like salt, then what is one and what is ten on a scale from 1-10?”

“Ten is best, one is not good?” one girl ventured.

“No… If Annapurna's service is like salt…”

“Ah!" another girl exclaimed, "Ten is too much salt, one is too little,”

“Exactly. What is five?”

“Perfectly balanced, right in the middle.”

“Yes. So we’re each going to give feedback to Annapurna. We'll rate her service on the salt scale from 1-10 and then offer some comments. Clear?”

Girls gave feedback to Annapurna that she had been a little too salty - too many questions, too times being offered the same dish. One girl appreciated Annapurna's attentive kindness and careful mood. Annapurna received her feedback with a stoic face, her blue eyes clear and grave.

"Annapurna," I said. "I experienced your service on the salt scale as a 3.5 – not quite enough salt. I had to repeatedly ask for another dish or for more water, and I felt shy and uncomfortable to do so. That said, I was quite surprised when you gave me the napkin! I felt competitive, and decided o serve you even better – I thought, I’m going to serve you ice cubes, so take that!" We all laughed and laughed.

Then I asked Annapurna, “So, if you were to rate my service to you on a scale from 1-10, what would I be? What is your feedback for me?”

"You were a five," she said.

"Please, Annapurna, I want to grow in my service. Please be honest with me,"

"Well," she said, "The ice cubes for my water was nice, you were very attentive, Bhakti lata,"

"Any constructive feedback?" I prodded. The other girls watched in anticipation.

Annapurna fell quiet. At last she said, “You were so serious,”


“Yes. Maybe you could... smile more,”

I laughed and nodded. “Thank you,” I said. I folded my palms to this girl who had become my guru today. "I shall carefully consider what you have said,"

“Next time," Annapurna said with a grin, "I will fold your napkin into an origami bird,”

We all laughed.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Lower the Mask

- Shel Silverstein

I used to lose my voice a lot. I would lose it especially when I wanted to express myself the most. I have been on nine traveling youth bus tours and on eight of those tours inevitably I would lose my voice. At times my throat hurt to even hold a conversation, I had to whisper. Something I loved to do - participate in and also be asked to lead kirtan - quickly became out of the question.

Today I have been meditating on a quality that I have been meditating on for almost ten years: vulnerability. Vulnerability means being stronger than I ever thought humanly possible. Vulnerability means opening the heart - again, and again, and again - because without living a vulnerable life I am living a shell of a life.

Vulnerability means honesty. It means sharing the heart with clarity, for all of its messy and beautiful glory.

Vulnerability means owning my own messy, beautiful glory. No one else is responsible for the state of my heart.

Vulnerability means opening up the heart, knowing it could be smashed. Or worse, it could be ignored.

Vulnerability is the only way to live because it means getting in touch with the truest part of my soul and living that. It's easy to hide behind a mask of "fineness" because if people criticize or hurt the mask, hey, it's just the mask.

But if people hurt or criticize me - with no mask - then that's, well, ME.

Living life without a mask is damn scary.

And it is the only way to be seen for the real me. No other way of living will satisfy the spirit. How satisfying could it be to be loved for my mask, no matter how beautiful that mask is? Some movie stars go through this quite literally - plastic surgery.

I don't have enough money for plastic surgery or expensive wardrobes or fancy cars. So I put up my own plastic surgery of shutting down and an ingenuine smile. The cost is not money. The cost is living a life half-lived.

When I open my heart to live from a vulnerable place, a truly deep place, then love goes deep into my heart. To be hated and loved for who I am is infinitely more satisfying than to be hated and loved for who I charade to be.

I have lost my voice many times, although less and less over the years. Nevertheless, the journey is everyday, the process of lowering the mask and letting myself speak from the heart. Sing from the heart.

This life ain't no masquerade ball. Lower the masks, lower the masks! and let our eyes open and our voices fly free.

To write is to dare the soul. So write.