Before coming to India, I met with a trusted adviser, Siri Gian Kaur Khalsa of Espanola, New Mexico. She provided some valuable advice and insights. One of Siri Gian’s recommendations for me was to spend two hours a week doing seva (selfless service) at Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple). Sound advice which I followed regularly for some time. Whether peeling garlic, chopping carrots or shelling peas, seva at the temple is always an interesting, meditative experience that gives you a silent space to confront your inner self as well as an exercise in patience as there are sometimes long periods of sitting silently as you wait for more work to appear.
One sunny winter afternoon while sitting on the stiff red floor cloth, chopping carrots in a cluster of a dozen Indians. I felt something pressing my back and thinking it was just the closeness of many bodies as frequently happens in Indian culture, I ignored it. But the pressing kept happening so I finally looked over my shoulder to see why and saw this little face:
She didn’t seem to want anything, she just kept standing behind me and placing her hands on my back.
A shift occurred in my seva routine when my studies became more intense. Ten Shabads were given in quick succession to transcribe in Gurmukhi with musical notation, memorize with correct pronunciation, veechar (the process of contemplating the Shabad to understand the meaning) and of course learning to play and sing each Shabad correctly. On top of that, learning to play tabla was added to my curriculum!
I became overwhelmed. The translation and notation process was tedious and took hours. At one point, the letters, sargams and lines all started to run together. I felt I couldn’t comprehend one more line of notation.
To keep up with the many hours of study and practice, I was forced to curtail my excursions to the temple – or anywhere else besides attending my lessons and venturing out to buy food.
Success was coming as several Shabads were notated fully, memorized, comprehended and played correctly. But something bothered me greatly. I missed doing seva. I knew from past experience that seva always brought me out of deep lows and the first few months in India were tremendously challenging on an emotional and spiritual level.
I felt strongly called upon to do a seva that would help all people, not just a group I was affiliated with. I was longing for a seva opportunity that was something neglected by others. It had to be something very near me to optimize my limited time away from my studies. The Aaha! moment came when I looked out my door at something I had noticed since the day I arrived in my new home.
Anyone who has been to India will recall seeing the vast quantities of trash lying around. Food wrappers, plastic shopping bags, plastic kite string, cups and miscellaneous small plastic debris are everywhere. The open areas of trees, grass and plants in my neighborhood are littered with trash. I had found my seva, and it was right outside my door. No commuting, and after I was done, could walk back into my apartment, clean myself up and resume my practicing. Win, win!
When the large garbage bags and disposable gloves I ordered arrived I set out in the early morning and begin my work. My feet walked over the grass and instead of a soft grass sound, my ears and heart were saddened to hear the crunch, crunch of hidden plastic. I worked for about an hour and collected a huge bag of garbage. I was sweaty, and dirty, but felt so much gratitude in my heart that I had this seva so close to home that would benefit all people in the neighborhood, be they Hindu, Sikh, Muslim etc. The seva also benefits the wild pigs, dogs and other creatures that call the neighborhood home as it removes things dangerous for them to eat or get caught in.
Some days I get a bit low when I realize the extent of the garbage issue, knowing I can’t clean it all. But I am slowly pecking away at my local area and feel it a blessing to make that small difference.
I challenge you to look around your area for opportunities to serve the other – people you don’t know or a group you are not part of. Step outside and serve the totality of creation. Each small effort makes a difference!
I am hoping to find some equilibrium soon so I can also resume my Darbar Sahib seva visits. But for now, the Shabads keep coming!