On a normal afternoon in San Diego, I love to go for a peaceful walk through the neighborhood and picturesque central Balboa Park.
Photo Credit- https://www.doorsteps.com/articles/the-best-neighborhoods-in-san-diego-for-a-walkable-lifestyle
On the streets of Rishikesh, India, I also desire an afternoon stroll, but instead of the spaciousness of sidewalks and streets lined with palm trees, I'm thrown into complete chaos. With a width of about 10 feet on this cobblestone trash lined street, I'm bombarded with barking wild dogs, families of holy cows eliminating waste, weeping beggars, shouting store keepers, and honking motorbikes that won't stop for anyone.
This is an overwhelming experience for the senses. Everyone and everything seems to have a hand stretched out, desperate for me to bless them with some form of wealth. The dogs and cows not only wish for affection, but also clean water and food while the shop keepers are willing to embarrassingly drop their prices just to get a single sale. Those riding a motorbike would be thrilled to take me to my next destination for a small fee. My heart breaks at the sight of beggars with missing limbs or holding a box labeled "ear cleaning kit" I'm obviously a foreigner whose clean clothes and trendy haircut suggest a life full of blessings. I starkly realize that even what I consider to be a humble load that I carry with me on this journey is worth far more than some of these people will ever have in their lifetime.
Each day that I dare to brave these uncomfortable streets, I feel tense and cautious. Are the onlookers waiting for me to drop my guard for just a second so that they can snatch my bag? If I even respond to a simple "how are you?" I'm instantly surrounded with more questions and crowds urging me to give. Even when I have selectively purchased a small souvenir or beverage, it's never enough. They want more.
So, what should I do about this? If I start giving my cash and belongings away to everyone who asks, I will be completely broke and left with nothing in no time. How do I decide who to give to and how much? How can I have an open heart of compassion in such a situation?
On the sixth night of the 29th annual International Yoga Festival, I felt a spiritual awakening. Throughout the week, I had been learning techniques for developing a peaceful and joyful demeanor through yoga and meditation, but I was having trouble maintaining this calm on the streets. After dinner, the Pujya Swami Chanand Sarawatiji was exiting the dining hall just as I was about to as well. He paused and turned towards me and made eye contact. With his hands at his heart's center, he offered a simple bow of Namaste. My heart filled with warmth and connectivity. Instantly, I knew that this gesture of love and light was what I needed to bring to this outside world.
On the very last day of the Yoga Festival, I stepped out onto the streets with the courage to go a lot further, but this time leading with love and trust. Each time a shop keeper or beggar asked me for something, I brought my hands to my hearts center, lips curled into a gentle smile, and I softly bowed to them. When the cows blocked the road or motorbikes whizzed by, I took a long slow breath and noted the rhythm of sounds surrounding me. I walked slowly, careful not to step on excrement or dog's tails. When asked if I would be willing to take a photo with an Indian family, I gladly accepted, letting the joy and love in my heart shine through.
Later, I left a generous donation to the ashram as I know they use their income to take care of the land and the people. "Pujya Swamiji has also increased several-fold the humanitarian activities undertaken by Parmarth Niketan (www.parmarth.org). The ashram is not only a spiritual haven for those who visit, but it also provides education, training, and health care to those in need."
Now I am in Nepal and "Namaste" is the typical greeting. I am constantly reminded of its true meaning...
"The light within me honors the light within you!"