Friday, October 14, 2005

California trip

(Copied from an old blog post on my old blog. Please excuse lack of editing, grammatical and other errors. Did not spend much time editing and revising.)

As I had written a few posts ago, this trip was to attend a spiritual retreat at Blue Mountain Center of Meditation (BMCM) from 1-7, Oct in Tomales, CA which is around 60 miles north of San Fran.

My flight to San Fran from Boston was at 7 AM. That meant all night jagarne (night out). Road repair authorities in their wisdom had blocked I-93 highway leading to the airport for repairs. The exit I took put me somewhere in downtown Boston which simply sucks. Thankfully, I had enough time to get lost in the downtown, trace my way back and then reach airport well in time. It was sheer luck that day I had chosen to leave an hour sooner than normal. Otherwise, after having spent 1.25 hours going round and round in Boston downtown after getting lost, I would have barely made it or would have had to say 'ram ram' to the trip. Funny thing is at one point after 15 minutes of getting lost I was near my MBA school, Suffolk University. There I stopped and fired off my GPS navigator. The funny thing is Boston roads change on daily basis. Although the GPS picked up the signal in no time and started guiding me, the roads it was asking me to take had either become one ways or closed or what not. Somehow, managed to get on I-93 out of Boston and retraced my way back to the airport. It is no wonder they say roads in Boston just followed the paths that cows took in olden days.

Flight to San Fran was great. Flight was very empty. Had the entire row of 3 seats for myself. That helped to make up for lost sleep. This was my first time with an airline called Song ( which was operated by Delta. Quite an interesting experience. If you happen to fly it, you are bound to like the background music of the safety instructions and the accent of the recorded voice. It sounds beautiful Latino. Even the crew jokes around. Refreshing. But like all bankrupt airlines they don't treat you for anything more than peanuts and soda. All else is for purchase. Compare that with our Jet Airways in India. Even on Madras-B'lore flight of 45 mins or so they serve some nice snacks etc.

Flight to San Fran was uneventful. Had to take a bus to Petaluma, north of San Fran. Nice big bus. Went right over Golden gate bridge. So, major sight seeing was done on the way. That's good. From Petaluma, took a taxi to Tomales which around 16 miles in hardcore rural community. Hardly see any life there other than huge ranches.

I was the first one to reach the retreat house. Simple but elegant house. There is a nice deli at the town square. Good food. Vegetarian too.

By the time I returned to the retreat house after lunch, Alan from UK and Valerie from Boston arrived too. Alan flew all the way from UK to attend the retreat. Valerie, whom I had met at regional retreats in Boston and weekly Satsangs, is a regular visitor to Nilgiri retreats.

Managed to find the key to the retreat center in the shoe rack. Voila, we were in. On the table were the room assignments. Went up to our respective rooms and freshened up. Accommodation was simple but elegant.

Came down at around 4 PM. By then many people had started streaming in. They allow only around 18 people per retreat to let retreat participants make most of the retreat.

First session started at 4.30 PM. Some of the people who had come from BMCM center. I knew them from my prior meetings. Some like Tim Flinders, who wrote the biography of Easwaran, was someone I was waiting to meet. First session was more of a intro and what was going to be done over next 6 days.

Evening session was followed by a nice veggie dinner. Easwaran is considered to be one of the people who had started spreading vegetarianism in the US way back in 1960. "Laurel's Kitchen" the book with vegetarian recipes was the best seller which kind of gave first taste of financial freedom to BMCM in 1960s. Most of the menu items were from this book.

After the dinner, there was another session, video of Easwaran's talk. 9 PM time to retreat. Boy, weren't we sleepy!

Sunday, 2/10, was the first full day of retreat. Day began at 6 PM. 6.30-7 was group meditation at the mediation room in the retreat house. That room probably has the power accumulated from thousands of  hours of meditation from sincere aspirants. It simply refreshes to enter that cozy room and meditate.

7.30 was breakfast. Hearty whole grain stuff.

7.30-9 was personal time. We normally spent that time getting ready, catching up on reading towards that day's session or simply relaxing. 9.30 session began. These daily sessions were the best part of the retreat on all 6 days. Some instructors from BMCM came to kick off some topics and we had very lively conversations. Everyone benefited so much from each others experience. Also, all instructors were very nice, accomplished and knowledgeable. This session continued till 12.30 with a break in between. On some days, 18 people were split into two groups and were led by individual instructors.

12.30-1 PM was for meditation or for a walk. Either way it refreshing. Walking in that country side is as refreshing as anything else.

1 PM was lunch. Again hearty veggie stuff from Laurel's Kitchen.

After lunch till 5 pm was more like a personal time. People did several things. Only on two days we had scheduled activities. On 2/10, we went to Ramagiri asharam which is around 2-3 miles from the retreat house where some original disciples of Easwaran live. On 2/10, we went and took part in community mantram writing with Mrs. Easwaran and rest of the ashram folks.

5-6 pm was to catch up on reading. 6-6.30 PM was for evening meditation followed by dinner. 7.30-9 pm was again discussion, video.

I personally had great one-on-one discussions with Tim and Brian from the center. They really helped clarify some of the nagging questions. I wouldn't have expected anything less from folks like Tim and Brian who have been serious 'sadhak's (seekers) for over 20-30 years.

One day we went to near by Dillon beach. Easwaran when he was alive went there daily for his daily walks. He used to joke that Dillon beach contains more mantrams than all the sand on it. He ceaselessly repeated mantram. He asks everyone to do the same. Best stabilizer to quieten the monkey mind.

Everyday 2 or 3 people from BMCM joined us for lunch. That way we got to meet many of them. Simply impressive spiritual aspirants.

On Thu, 10/6, we went to Ramagiri, the ashram, for the entire afternoon. We had an occasion to meet Mrs. Easwaran who is 85. It's amazing to see her vitality and energy even at this age. I have never met anyone in my life who has all their faculties and physical health so good at that age. OK, I was convinced there is some good coming from keeping a simple but disciplined lifestyle that Easwaran advocated.

We were given a nice tour of the whole ashram which sits on a beautiful vintage ranch spreading over 250 acres. I really wished that our retreat house was on the same campus. But, I can understand their idea behind keeping the retreat house little away from their ashram. We retreat participants are not yet that spiritually mature enough to blend in well there :)

The beauty of Ramagiri asharam is simply superb. You can see that in the pix that I posted. Oh! those deers and how well they have adapted to human settlement is simply amazing. This is one instance where man and animals are really living in real harmony. Impressive! Funny story is that a deer used to leave its new born calf just outside Easwaran's study and go on graze with an expectation that Easwaran was responsible for taking care of its calf. Remember wild animals are more careful with their little ones!

Memorial for Easwaran that they have constructed is very beautiful. The memorial garden is very innovative in the sense that it has vegetation that deer does not eat. So, once again they have striven to maintain harmony.

Shanti the mediation hall has such a divine feeling. No wonder on a conservative estimate it is has accumulated 130 years of serious meditation. (Count of the number of people who mediate there and the number of hours each meditates and for how many years).

Friday, retreat got over at 2 PM after lunch. One of the fellow retreat participants drove us to Petaluma from where we took bus back to San Fran.

The weekend of 10/8-10/9 was spent with a dear friend in San Fran. I was meeting him after 10+ years. I do not recall having met anyone after a gap of even 5 years let alone 10. It was really nice to reconnect. I had gotten to know him during my stay in Singapore and we had become good friends.

My friend kidded that he did not want to break the spiritual nature of my visit. So, on Sat he took me to Sivananda Aasharam in Grass Valley, CA which is around 180 miles from San Fran beyond Sacarameto. This was the ashram founded by a disciple of Swami Sivananda who was a famous Indian guru who was a successful doctor before becoming a guru. It is nestled in beautiful hilly country side. Nice place.

On the way back stopped at Mata Amritanandamayi aasharam at San Ramon. On occasion of Dussera a lot of mantra chanting etc. was going on. Felt good to be part of that as well.

On Sunday, went to visit a Buddhist monastery in the hills of Santa Cruz. The drive was beautiful on curvy roads.

Took the red eye flight back to Boston. Thankfully, plane was again empty. So, could get a decent sleep.

All in all a very refreshing and fulfilling vacation.