Ishwar Patel and his wife Vasuda

We stayed at The Environmental Sanitation Institute in Gujarat.  This institute is part of the legacy of Ishwar Patel, a man who followed Gandhian principles to improve the lives of scavengers and untouchables.

“As a volunteer for Gandhiji’s constructive movement, Ishwar was deeply impacted by the discrimination that scavengers experienced as they gathered human waste and he consciously dedicated his life to the promotion of sanitation. Becoming known as “Mr. Toilet” through the construction of more than 200,000 toilets, Ishwar Kaka’s work was guided by the cosmic integrity by which he lived his life. He loved the work of sanitation and so the actions in his life were guided by his heart….”  (From Conversation with Jayesh Patel on Christmas Eve).

Seriously.  “Mr. Toilet.”  Love has a sense of humor.  It was perfect for someone like me, who blends the sacred and the profane….It was also perfect because I work at a historical landmark church with a poop problem.  (More on that later.  I don’t have a poop problem – the church does).

The institute was a tropical paradise.  The grounds were lush, there were spiritual statues everywhere, the rooms were simple and immaculate.

My first day, I sat on the lawn of this opulent space and talked with Meghna, of Wisdom Crafts about untouchables.

“Ishwar Dada spoke of a turning point in his life,” she said.  “Once when he was a child, he picked up the broom of an untouchable.  His aunt saw him and got angry.  She told him his action made him untouchable.   She ‘cured him’ by pouring water on one of her gold earrings and sprinkling Ishwar….”

I paused and let that sink in.

“That’s kind of crazy,” I said.

Meghna laughed and agreed.

Then we talked some more.  “The made-up remedy of water on an earring seems so strange,” I said.  “But even stranger is the idea that people bought the idea of untouchability at allThat’s as fictional as the bit about the earring.

Later I asked Ujwal if the concept of untouchables still exists in India.  “It’s not legal,” he said.  “But people still discriminate.”

Yes, we discriminate.  We apply untouchability to others – and to ourselves.

We reject the untouchable aspects of our human flaws and frailties.  Untouchability is still “legal” in our hearts.  We are ashamed.  We compound shame by being ashamed of our shame.  Then we project the shame outwards and see untouchability in others….

What have you deemed “untouchable” in yourself and others?  Can you see that your perception of untouchability is made-up?  Can you recognize that Absolute Reality includes everything?  Is it possible to melt the darkest parts of yourself and others through the sanitizing principle of forgiveness?  

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Intimacy beyond Identity

When I was a child, I went to Girl Scout Camp for two weeks every summer.  I remember wondering, “Will the other kids like me?  Will I fit in?”  For the most part, I got along fine.

Now, pushing sixty, I still wonder “Will the other kids like me?” But I had no qualms about making friends in India.  Even though I didn’t know why I was going – I only had a vague notion about meditation, Gandhi, and kindness – I knew I’d be with the nicest people in the world.

And I was correct.  We were thrown into an unparalleled matrix of friendship.

Yet I was unprepared for the level of connection I found with strangers.  I didn’t know much about anyone, but I trusted them completely.  It was intimacy beyond identity.

This was most visible in my relationships with the volunteers, the people that dedicated many weeks out of their lives to plan, prepare, and serve.

I struggled to identify them, to remember their names.  I wanted to be a good guest, respectful of local traditions, a noble ambassador for the U.S.  But their names were hard for my American ears.  Plus, they had non-sequitur nicknames.  I’d meet someone.  He’d say, “My name is Neerad, but you can call me Po.”

“Why????” I’d think.  “How do you get Po from Neerad???”

One night, I was invited to sing on stage in the Seva café.  There were probably about sixty people there.   In the true spirit of ServiceSpace, I decided to include a local volunteer, a beautiful woman I met a few days prior.  We had talked at length.  I found out she could sing.   Granted, I couldn’t remember her name, but I knew we could harmonize.

It was time to call her onstage.  Embarrassed that I didn’t know her name, I stepped up to the mic and decided to improvise.

I said, “For this next song, I’d like to call up… um… Boom….Boom-chicka….Boom…Boomerang… whatever your name is, c’mon up.”   And then to everyone, “I’m sorry, I still don’t know your names…..”

People laughed.

Boom-chicka smiled and said, “You can call me Ginny.”

“Okay, now you’re just messing with me.” I said.  “Don’t we already have a Jiggy???”

She replied, “We do.  Jignasha.”


“Why don’t you call me Boomie?”

“That’ll work,” I replied.

Then we sang together like old friends.

We reached beyond naming identity into the music of intimacy.

I’ve heard that as soon as you give God a name, you put him/her in a box framed by your own limitations.  The same is true for all reality – all people, conditions, and circumstances.  Of course, we have to name “the other” to be able to navigate life.  But names evoke perception and projection.  When we look beyond the identities we project, we find a closer approximation of Absolute Reality -joyful intimacy and unabashed friendship waiting for us to wake up and embrace.

That night in the Seva café, I found a local woman who was both stranger and sister.  I found someone who could laugh with me; someone who harmonize literally and figuratively; someone who could love my clumsiness.

This was intimacy beyond identity.  Instant friendship.  Instant family.

Boomie (Bhumika) and I got to be good friends.  We would often sing to each other to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean…  “Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my Boomie to me, to me…”

Today I smile as I remember.   My memories bring back my Boomie to me.  I savor our kinship and trust intimacy beyond identity.

How do you name “the other?”  How can naming people, or circumstances interfere with Absolute perception?  Where can you let go of labels?  

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“’Prasada’ literally means a gracious gift.  It is typically food that is first offered to a deity, saint, Perfect Master, or an avatar, and then distributed in His or Her name to their followers or others as a good sign.”


Those who ingest Prasad are said to embody the blessings of the Divine.

In India, I learned to extend the definition of Prasad.

“Food prepared with love is Prasad,” they taught us.

Maybe that’s why the food tasted so good.  A lot of it was foreign to me.  I didn’t always recognize what we were eating.  But the mindfulness and kindness that went into the preparation had a subtle effect.

I cultivated reverence for “food prepared with love.”

In this reverence, I remembered the mystical presence that prepares all food.

Love, God, Absolute Reality prepares food with love.  Fruit bursts out of barren branches; broccoli pushes it’s way out of the ground….Love surrenders the raw elements of food to chefs everywhere.  They prepare the food with love; they circulate it to us.  We eat it.  Love continues it’s holy work in digestion, circulation, assimilation, elimination….This holy process gives us the energy required to prepare and offer love to the world.

Everything is a never-ending cycle of love preparing love to prepare more love.

Our work, our relationships, our joys, and our sorrows – everything is Prasad, everything is holy.

Love preparing love reminds me of a blessing my husband taught me.  He learned it from his teacher, John Bennett.

All life is one, everything that lives is holy.

Plants, animals and humankind – all must eat to live and nourish one another.

We bless the lives that have died to give us our food.

Let us eat together gratefully, resolving by our work to pay the debt of our existence.

With all this love, this smorgasbord of love – the only thing we can do is try and love more.   We can’t out-love love.  But we can move into humble awe, say thank you, and resolve by our inner work to pay the unpayable debt of our holy Whole existence.


What are some ways you can pay for the insurmountable gift of your existence?  Gratitude, praising others, seeing the holiness in everything, loving wastefully…all of these things — but what specifically calls to you?  How do you thank life for your life?     


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