Catching the Karuna Virus

Written by – Arpita Bohra

It was an impulsive decision, taken hours before I actually arrived at ESI on March 19th. It was a cool Thursday evening. Coronavirus manifested only as the sanitizer proffered to me by my favorite waitress at my favorite restaurant, a day before. And the rescheduled workshops I was meant to be traveling to over the next 6 weeks. Back then, coronavirus meant a few weeks pause before life resumed as normal. We knew cases were rising, but we had no idea what we were in for. Normal life had been rescheduled to May, and so most of us entered this period of idle time grudgingly.

I arrived at ESI on the 19th of March for the silent Karuna Virus retreat. A day before the retreat ended, Modi announced a 3 week lockdown across India. Keen on returning to my apartment, yet not keen on spending 3 weeks completely in isolation- the question offered was- where would you rather be locked down?

I chose ESI. We chose to continue our retreat in a gentler way. With the kitchen team and cleaning team staying at home, managing the meals came to us.

This is the story of how I came here for a retreat, and how this place turned into home for us. While most privileged people across the world experienced a life within the walls of their homes, we found ourselves arriving into an unintentional community within another community of trees, flowers, birds, fish, and mosquitoes.

I had always thought of myself, as most people think of themselves as possessing above average levels of not just intelligence but kindness and compassion. My education has been in literature, and my training in psychotherapy so I could make an intellectual argument that I have been taught to think and feel from other perspectives and act in the interests of their wellbeing. I had been carrying that assumption happily for a while, feeling my heart grow a bit lazy- but I couldn’t pinpoint anything in particular. But being at ESI reconnected me to the heart of service and generosity in a way that I had not been connected with before. Nobody likes to think of themselves as unkind. But something I have been wondering about is what happens when we do go the extra mile? What happens when we really strengthen the heart muscles of giving and receiving? How do we shed the weight of the inessential from the heart?

It’s a small but potent moment that will stay with me. I was cooking lunch. Chole- chawal. Lunch is served. The bell has rung. I move towards the plates, only aware now of my hunger and tiredness. I am getting ready to sit and eat. Pancho, my lunch partner nudges me gently to stay behind and serve. My first response isn’t to jump at the opportunity to be on my feet for another fifteen minutes. But Pancho is glowing from the anticipation of serving food from a hungry stomach and I decide to join him.

I’m glad I do. I get to see the faces of my friends light up as they see the food. I get to feel happy to be able to serve them a meal they are excited to eat. I get to watch them sit and eat and smile, and call me to join. It’s a small moment, but it really is the best moment of my day. Pancho’s nudge- going the extra mile, doing a little bit extra to make the serving of food more special- has tripped me into a different state of being. It’s there, standing at the food counter, sweaty, hot and tired that I realize how satisfied I am. And how energizing it is to feel this kind of satisfaction, the satisfaction of stretching yourself to show up more generously.

Some of the most bitter sibling fights in the history of my relationship with my sister have been about food. The last slice of a cheesy pizza, the inequality of an improperly halved chocolate cake, someone eating the hotter alu paratha, another finishing the rasmalai in the fridge. It’s a testament to our parents’ faith in our goodness that they continued to bring home these “ conflict provoking treats” that often risked their sanity as well as ours. I am sharing all of this just so you know where I come from, when it comes to sharing food. Sure, I can do the occasional good deed and offer someone a part of my meal- but in my past I have been known to not be too evolved from the cavemen when it comes to claiming my share. ( Assuming they did so!)

Arriving into an unintentional community, I notice what I call “food anxiety” rise in my mind when it feels like there will not be enough food for everybody. When I cook the meals, I try to ensure everyone gets to eat. This means ensuring food items are not over served. But what do you do when you’ve finally made the kind of dal you have been dreaming of eating, and then people start coming for seconds and thirds because it’s SO good? Do you smile at them and offer them more? Do

you keep a bowl for yourself hidden away? How do you deal with your twin desires- wanting to be satisfied but also wanting to satisfy? Are they always compatible?

I am grateful to report that my community saturated me with so much generosity in the course of a day that I had no option but to let it flow through me. Sitting down to eat with the last spoon of sabzi, or the last bowl of dal- when I would see someone leaving the service counter a little disappointed that the food was over- I found myself acting differently. I found myself sharing half or sometimes all of my food with them. This is why I needed to give you the context of conflict with my sister, growing up. Being generous with food, or offering the other sibling a larger share was not a spiritual practice that my sister and I ever subscribed to. But here, I found that even if I just ate half of what I served myself, and shared the rest with someone who really enjoyed it- strangely, I never left the table feeling unsatisfied or hungry. It was here that I experienced that being able to share and make someone a little bit happier has a sweetness of its own, one that differs from dessert.

And then, there were the days when summer arrived and my system refused everything that was made from grain, or dal or had oil. I spent a few days yearning for the cool sweetness of a juicy melon, or the lightness of an orange slice. But we were living in lockdown, and the fresh fruit supply chains weren’t what they used to be. Gratefully sipping the chaas at lunch, I found that my stomach was happy to take a break from the food it had been taking in over the last few weeks. In the evenings, I would have a small portion of rice or khichdi- but it all felt too heavy. I think I even dreamt of fruits on those days. And then, a few days later, Jayeshbhai arrived. Apart from the regular veggies, he had brought us some fruits. There were six melons. A box of grapes. Bananas. Watermelons. Oranges. Apples. At one point, even pineapples. He didn’t need to go out of his way. He could have just picked up bananas and oranges for us, and left it at that. But he brought us whatever he could have found. He didn’t just do what was enough. He constantly did more than enough. There is a difference when you are lucky enough to receive that kind of

heartfelt generosity. You feel it in your cells. You feel it in your spirit. And you feel it in your smile, when you finally sit at the lunch table and eat a perfectly sweet slice of cool melon. To be able to receive the gift of deeper generosity has softened me, and it is a gift that I hope I can bring to more people.

As a psychotherapist, and as a human who has struggled with her own fair share of life pain/ mental health challenges – I would ask us to consider two things about kindness. Firstly, to be able to give more deeply, you need to be aware of where you experience scarcity in your own being. And you need to commit to generosity not just to others, but firstly to yourself. This doesn’t mean sneaking the last slice of cheesecake out

of the fridge at midnight. It means truly evaluating these questions:

  • How can I be kinder with myself? How can I give a little more?
  • Which part of my life deserves my deeper awareness and support?
  • What do I truly love and appreciate about my being?
  • What am I committed to nourishing within myself?
  • What brings me joy- and do I create opportunities for myself to truly receive it?
  • What is the deepest and most beautiful gift I can give myself?
  • How is it for me to experience my own generosity towards me in action and spirit?

Too often, we rush to fill someone else’s cup while ignoring that ours is cracked and in need of repair as well. I am engaging with these questions personally. But not just for myself. I think sustainable generosity deserves to be a two way exploration. I am also hoping to hold these questions with equal commitment for those around me. I am hoping to become a better, more nuanced giver- honoring the gift and opportunity of my own privileged life and being in a position to bring more heartfelt attention to the lives and beings of those around me. And who knows, maybe this time, I might actually walk the talk with my family- try letting my sister finish the last slice of cheesecake. Perhaps it will be sweeter than I imagined.

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