There were 20 of us from 14 countries. Some of us were Hindu. Some from different Christian denominations, some others Muslim, some Jewish and a few others Buddhist. As a part of inter religious dialogue exploration we were going to visit each other’s places of worship. That morning we were invited into the conference room in which three large concentric circles were drawn. In the innermost yellow circle was written ‘Comfort zone’, in the second green circle was written ‘Stretch zone’, in the third and outermost red circle was written ‘Danger Zone’.
The facilitator said that he would read out some questions. In response depending on what we felt we could jump across any of the zones. He started, ‘How many of you have friends from other religions?’ This was easy. We huddled in the comfort zone. How many of you can eat on the same table another is eating forbidden food of another religion ? Some Muslims and Jews moved to the stretch zone and a few others moved to danger zone. How many of you can visit each other’s places of worship? Again, some moved to the stretch zone and some to danger zone. How many of you can pray at each other’s places of worship? Again the Christians, Muslims and Jews moved to the stretch or danger zone. The exercise was getting uncomfortable for most of my friends. How many of you will eat what has been received from the altar of the other religion? Most moved to the danger zone. Some of my friends asked the facilitator – can we stop the game? And after a couple of questions – the facilitator stopped.
While we had started with much laughter and camaraderie, everyone’s expressions had become sombre. Everyone was reminded of the trauma their respective religious people had gone through because of the other. Since I and another Buddhist were the only one who stayed in the comfort zone, we were asked how come? I replied that different ways of living are not threatening to us as we live with much diversity in India. Although religions are different from each other, being Hindu allows us to embrace all forms of worship as valid. The Buddhist also said that we look at each other as one human to another and wish well for all. We can come to your place of worship but we won’t pray because we don’t believe in God. We reflected on what we had learnt through the exercise and this really applies to life. As it turned out, all of us did visit a temple, a mosque, a synagogue, a church and a pagoda. The learning over these visits was huge and it changed all of us.
I share some points below for reflection.
Most of the learning moments in our lives are random or accidental. There are situations and situations. We could go through these mechanically or learn something from it.
Learning involves possibility – seeing what is and what can be. Learning opens the doorway to possibility. One person sees a pesky beggar at the traffic signal. Another sees a struggling person and moves away. Someone else sees a human being and see how they can help with employment. Often, seeing involves experiencing discomfort but if one is a learner you very well know that discomfort comes with the territory.
Learning is the only place where we find our own resilience. We can quickly adapt and adjust to a given situation. The pandemic has been a good example in how we learnt to altar our behaviour with the masking, social distancing and increased sanitisation. And yet even after two years we still need reminders because some of us are still resistant to new ways of behaving.
Learning is a lifelong skill that does not depend on your domain. In the iconic book – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, there is an equally iconic dialogue between the merchant Kamasami and the young monk Siddhartha who is trying to be a householder and seeks a job knowing fully well that he has no typical qualifications. The merchant asks him what have you learned and what can you do –
I can think, I can wait and I can fast.
He not only gets the job but also succeeds and thrives in it.
Siddhartha said – I can think.
Can we say the same? Thinking across domains does not depend on our academic qualifications nor our designation nor on whether one is in marketing, finance, medicine, digital media, economics or into raising a family. Thinking involves seeing reality, considering possibility and also thinking through the required actions and acting on it. Thinking without action in most situations would be just a way of waffling. Thinking clearly allows us to harness our emotions and respond effectively to situations including disasters. One can literally think oneself into suicide or in the light of the shastra see the free being that one has always been.
How we use the antah- karana, our mind, as an inner instrument is a lesson in lifelong learning.
Can I think in most situations or do I stop thinking, become mechanical or numb or indifferent or lazy, like it happens in mindless entertainment? Can I think of ways to respond?
Can I think and give the other the benefit of doubt? Can I think of ways to heal and move forward rather than the same old repetitive pattern that keeps me stuck in loops of blame and criticism?
Siddhartha said ‘I can wait’.
Waiting is not passive. It means the forbearance for waiting out situations recognising fully well that ‘This too shall pass’. Often in adverse phases such as not getting a job or not finding a partner or not being able to conceive or not getting the result we want, we can heap self judgments one upon the other- fast and furious and then we try to get up from under the rubble. We resist the situation. We become snappy and want to bite off the other’s head. The situation was difficult as it was and we have made it even more difficult with all our build up rather then merely waiting it out. Learning involves waiting for the meal to be made, the plant to grow, the bud to bloom, the feotus to have its full term. The waiting period for each is different and we don’t confuse these.
Siddhartha said ‘I can fast.’
The hunger pangs, the energy that one is afraid of losing one’s energy makes us uncomfortable. Having to do with much less and giving up comfort is not easy. The experience of prolonged hunger is similar to the experience of desperation due to which people are willing to do anything. I will marry the first person I meet or take the first job that comes my way because I cannot handle the discomfort of deprivation or a denial of what I am used to. Learning involves being okay with less. Fasting means being okay with giving up, while being self reliant. Can I be okay without my ragas being fulfilled – without the tea/coffee being exactly how I am used to? Can I be ok without my comfort food, my habits, my people at every phase and still be cheerful ?
Learning can be uncomfortable and still if we stay in the stretch zone, soon enough our comfort zone extends even wider. We have experienced this in our yoga classes. While earlier the body felt stiff and rigid after some stretching little by little, the body was able to be comfortable with discomfort. What was earlier uncomfortable became comfortable if we kept stretching. This happens in how we use technology, get used to a new job, learn how to a parent or even learn chanting or Sanskrit.
And so we see that if you are a life-long learner your life is made.
Any learning makes us bigger than the situation.
No mountain is too big nor is any valley too deep for the river.
As we learn and flow and flow and learn, we flow through the river of life enriched and enriching others.
As the year 2021 comes to a close I share this poem with you with a lot of love and prayers.