So lately I have been feeling that for the number of times I have sat in a Vipassana course, and so immensely benefitted from, I have not served nearly enough. The last time I served, was a couple of years ago at the NCV Center in Kellsyville, CA. It was a 10 day course, of which I served about 7 having to return for previously planned traveling.
That was a course which offered Persian and English discourses and the Assistant Teachers were also Persian. It was a very “noisy” course for a silent retreat to put it lightly. As one who is familiar with my own culture, it wasn’t much of a surprise, though serving it was a different story. There was a lot of chatter, discussing the food, the course, the amenities. Students openly chatting and socializing while waking back to their rooms. People would ring the kitchen bell just to tell us, how delicious a dish was and “hope your hand is not hurting” a polite term of appreciation for the effort of cooking popular in Persian culture. We would just nod and try to convey with our eyes that ” YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK”!!! or they’d knock to ask “where the feta cheese was?” at breakfast. The bewildered expression of the “food loving” people at DAY 1 breakfast, where there was no feta cheese, walnuts or lavash bread was priceless!
The poor volunteer course manager had never worked so hard in her life, between running from the kitchen to the grounds, the meditation hall and the student quarters, quieting the chattering and answering questions about why they was no dinner to managing the number of students waiting to ask the teachers, probably the same questions, she must have collected a lifetime of merits in one course.
So that was the last course I served. It may have been one reason I had delayed it, or because sitting a course is so liberating, I wanted to use all the available time to stay within. At one of those moments where you know its time to align and center, its time for Vipassana, I signed up and clicked “to Serve” on a whim.
As the date got closer, my doubts arose. The many excuses your mind makes for not doing something which would take it out of its habitual comfort zone. “But my foot is hurting, I am not sure if I can sit for long. I have to finish my website, and plan our travels for Europe. We have these tickets on Friday, I really need to focus on my home projects, what about Kylo (my boy puppy), etc”…..although everything was lining up so miraculously for me to go it was hard to dismiss the coincidences. A delightful dog sitter just happened to be available out of the blue, the concert I was thinking of was for the following week not this week, it all screamed: GO, you need this….
I was still struggling with the fact that I had clicked “to serve” and the center is always looking for servers and counts on them. The day was nearing fast, and I was sorting out my escape routes from the responsibility. My mind and body had been too idle for too long, thats the danger of falling into the depths of habit and the dark cave of “comfort zone”.
On the morning of the day before the course started, I got a phone call. “Hi , Is this Ramona?”, I am from NCV center. YOU had signed up to serve this coming course?” I was shocked. I NEVER get phone calls before a course. “Yes, I am and I did sign up to serve. Though I was going to contact you, I am not certain of my Sitter situation for the entire course, but I will come to help set up for the first few days.” just came out. As luck would have it, he was also BABY sitting his grandchildren at the moment and knew how difficult it is to find a BABY sitter, etc. I stayed quiet. I mean, I never said baby sitter, I just said “sitter”, so technically, I didn’t lie, he just assumed!;)
He wanted me to pick up another server, ROBERT who didn’t have a ride. I was so relieved that I could contribute further by delivering more help as I was leaving the course early. The coast was nice and clear, almost off the hook, when he said: So, how old is your child!!?? I paused, I couldn’t straight out lie, I mean I am going to a Vipassana course, where “speaking no lies” is one of the 5 precepts as a basis of sitting a Vipassana course. So I came clean, “Actually, its a dog sitter I was referring to, Its a dog but my baby of course” he laughed , and I laughed although I felt blood rush to my face, I was so embarrassed!
I exchanged a few texts with Robert and planned to pick him up the next day at a cafe on the way to the center. Ok, so some of the guilt was averted now. I drove up to the cafe, the next morning. I saw a guy sitting outside by himself with a backpack sipping his coffee. I figured that must be Robert, a little heavy set, shaved head, with a green t.shirt, he looked like a ROBERT to me. I texted him that I am across the street in a Black BMW”
He got up and got his backpack and started to walk out of the cafe. Except he turned left out the door, and behind him, a tall hansom young man with black sports sun glasses, a hip haircut, and even a bigger backpack was waving at me.
Ola Ramona, I am ROBERTO! so THIS is Roberto, from Argentina, not Robert seemingly from Fresno!;) He was a free spirited world traveller, like most people I come across in Vipassana courses. We had an engaging conversation about his travels through North America, and south East Asian. When I asked where his favorite spot has been so far, “Yosemite, I am still in awe of its beauty, I still can’t believe how amazing it was” I secretly felt proud, that a guy from the exotic land of Argentina had been deeply touched by the beauty of our beloved National park. He had served and sat in many courses across the globe. Had even stayed with a guy who lived in the slums of India. After we discovered that our favorite book is “The Shantram”
For some reason I didn’t finish this blog at the time I wrote it, so now I just recall a few highlights, though the course was full of synchronicities and mind bending consequences as per usual!:)
At the center, Robert was picked to be the course manager for the men’s side, so I just saw him during meal times for a few minutes, we smiled and nodded..
I shared cabin number 3 with a girl from Oregon, who lived on a farm and raised her own chickens, grew her own veggies, had dreadlocks and wore hippy clothes. She could not have been more of an earth loving, tea brewing, tree hugging vegan-ist, peace loving hippy. For a few days we chopped and diced and cleaned in the kitchen together and just said goodnight in the cabin. Until one day, in the break room at lunch, as the servers were allowed to eat lunch, I noticed a tattoo on her arm. It caught my eyes though it was half covered under her sleeve. As she rolled up her sleeve to wash her bowl, I noticed it was a tattoo in Arabic letters. As surprised as I was to see arabic tattoo on the arm of the most Oregan-ic! girl I have ever met, it was nothing compared to the shock I got in a bet….”Oh, so’nso what does your tattoo say?” she hesitated a bit and then pulled up her sleeve and read me in FARSI a sort of a poetic phrase, which I cannot recall. My jaw dropped! Are you Persian???? She said no, I am from Eugene, Oregon!! I didn’t have to say anything, she read my deep shock from my face and continued, which only deepened the shock!!
I was in the NAVY for 7 years…! “YES???” and I had to learn Farsi because I was part of a special unit that dealt with Iranian Government!!!!!!!!!!! WHATTTT???? You, Navy? Farsi? I am roommates with an ex American Navy Spy on Iranian Government in a Vipassana course????? I mean, I have come across many completely out of the box characters in these courses throughout the years, BUT this one tops them all off….I didn’t know where to start with my questions, considering there is really no talking in these courses, just necessities, and also wanting to be careful not to cross boundaries or dig too deep into Navy’s Secret Affairs….
So she just summarized… she had been sent to Farsi classes along with some of her troops, she said they actually flew some of these professors from Iran to teach them the language correctly!!! Not surprisingly, she didn’t get into the nature of her actual role, just heard her say to another student, she had to listen into Government official radio conversations in Farsi and translate the contents to her superiors!
She went in with the intention to serve and it took her a while to realize what she was serving, She just wanted out, took 7 years to leave, it was world of violence, cruelty, betrayal and strict orders. Somehow, I cant recall, later she came across Vipassana and has completely turned her life around….now she found her true calling to SERVE….has been quite a journey to get here….!!!
I only got to stay 4 days, I actually extended my stay from one night, I enjoyed every minute of it. We were in the kitchen at 5 am every morning, preparing meals for the students. We did our 3 daily sittings in the Meditation Hall in between serving in the kitchen. It is rewarding on a different level. And on top of that, you get the meet people like her and Roberto who seem to lead different lives and they all end up opening your mind and heart into new horizons…
I am forever a Server of Vipassana….
Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu…..