I’m back home after over two weeks in British Columbia, Canada. It was a whirlwind of events. Almost two weeks participating in two different Sikh Camps. We taught a bunch of workshops with the kids and had a chance to make a lot of connections and friendships. Squeezed in between the two camps, myself and Guruka Singh were able to do quite a few radio and TV programs about SikhNet and living as a Sikh.
Overall being in the Vancouver/Surrey area helped me get a sense of the Sikh community outside of my little "Pind" of Espanola. I always find it interesting how different people’s beliefs and practices are in relation to being a Sikh. When I was at the camps and talked with so many of the youth it was apparent how, for so many youth, the Sikh lifestyle had become a kind of ritual that you were "supposed to follow". It was a "book" of rules that they learned from their parents and others, that had to be followed. Probably over the generations the deeper meaning and experience had been lost. Of course the kids were there at the camps in an effort to re-ignite the meaning and experience of being a Sikh.
In my early years of boarding school in India (1980’s) Sikhi made a somewhat negative impression since it was forced on me and was very dry/intellectual without any heart. We had Gurdwara in the morning and evening. If you were late you were punished (often times harshly). It was a sort of ritual that had little meaning or experience. That coupled with the negative feelings of being forced to do something did not sit well. I always cringe when I travel and see adults trying to "force" kids to chant or do something. This always has the opposite effect and causes a negative impact rather than trying to uplift and inspire them to do things. Maybe they don’t know how to do this? It wasn’t until I was much older and had a chance to experience this lifestyle in a more balanced and open way that I really appreciated this path.
Yesterday me and my wife Arjan were sitting on our back porch enjoying the nice Saturday afternoon talking about spirituality and life in general. We were talking about being a Sikh and how that means different things to different people. We were wondering what makes some people stay on this path and other people drift away. We thought about what things in our lives kept us in this lifestyle while other friends of ours didn’t maintain this path.
I always find it interesting that when some people hear about Sikhs in Espanola, New Mexico (or "Western Sikhs" in general) they think we are hardcore fanatic Sikhs. They assume everyone is Amritdhari (baptised) and must be hardcore, since in the wider circle of Sikhs many Amritdhari Sikhs are pretty hardcore and fanatic with their practices and beliefs. I often hear of Punjabi parents who try to dissuade their child from taking Amrit because of the fanatic stereotype that they have of Amritdhari Sikhs. In reality I think that many of the Sikhs in our community (Espanola, etc) are pretty relaxed in regards to being a Sikh. It is not so much a book of rules, but a spiritual journey that is different for each person. There is a lot of openness in our community with people coming from so many different religious backgrounds and from so many different parts of the world.
I was just reading Fi’s blog post "Being a Simple Sikh" and I can totally relate to how she is feeling. Many Sikhs have extremely different views on Sikh practices. Often times when I travel I find that some Sikhs have very different views and practices than myself in living as a Sikh. They then impose those practices on me as if it were law and that doing it any other way would be just wrong. I may not agree with their way of practicing something but I respect how they learned it and what works for THEM. When Sikhs become so extreme in their views they can’t open themselves up to realizing that there are many ways. Each person is unique and so is their journey in this life. I often find that when people get so set in one way of doing things, that they become close-minded and lose the opportunity to learn anything new. The side effect is that these hard black and white rules that they follow make it feel like a chore. Then when someone doesn’t follow it, they pick at them, criticize or try to find some fault.
Do you ever find yourself looking at someone that you think/know is Amritdhari and try to see if they are wearing all their 5 Kakars? I don’t always wear my kirpan on a gatra (strap) and often times tuck a small kirpan in my turban. When I travel sometimes someone sees my kirpan out and the next day they don’t see it. I then hear from friends that the person was asking them where my kirpan was. It’s as if he was trying to find some fault in me. Why would he care if I wear my 5Ks or not?? It’s like an insecurity that people have. Like they are suffering by doing these practices and they have to find fault in someone else if they are not doing the same. Or if someone looks inspirational and bright their own insecurity tries to find some fault to bring that person down rather then sharing in the joy and brightness of that person.
I don’t live by the same black and white "rule book" and that many people do. I try to be real and do things that have meaning to me. I think of myself as a "Simple Sikh". I’m not very intellectual when it comes to Sikhi. My experience of Sikhi is very experiential and personal to me. It is not a list of things that I am supposed to do, but how I live my life every moment. It is my constant striving to be open to learn and see everyone and everything as God. Every day I try to devote as much time as I can to working on myself and connecting with my soul. If don’t do something I don’t guilt trip myself. I just keep on going and stay focused on my goal.
Have hair, not have hair. Eat meat,be a vegetarian, look this way…or that way. Practice Sikhi this way or that way. We spend so much time arguing about what we believe is the "right way" and at the same time we divide each other according to those that have the same practice as we or not. The single largest problem I see is how we criticize, judge and fight with each other about the so called "right" way of living as a Sikh. Who are we to judge what is the right way? The experience of being a Sikh is very personal and between a Sikh and his Guru. Where is the compassion, love and support that we should be giving to others? When we say we give our head to the Guru, that really means we give our ego and personality. We should be acting from our heart and not our head. Rather then helping lift someone up in a positive way, we criticize and tear them down in our unconscious way of "sucking energy" from the person. It’s like the people in online discussion forums that post critical stuff to get attention and make themselves feel that they are doing something "good."
In my younger years I did some un-sikh like things and strayed off the path. This was something that I had to go through in order to learn the value of this path. It taught me many lessons and gave me a deep appreciation for this lifestyle. Sometimes we have to roll in the mud and feel miserable in order to be able to change our life. So how can we judge someone else who is rolling in the "mud?" Every experience we have is a potential lesson which can bring us closer to our own soul. Everyone is at a different stage of their spiritual journey and we don’t know how those experiences will change the person.
If I was just judged or pushed away during my low points then where would I be today? I would have probably stayed away from Sikhi. When Guru Nanak traveled thousands of miles he shared a message of oneness; that we are all on this path toward the same creator which lives in each of us and everywhere around us. We read the stories of the murderers, thieves and all kinds of "sinners" who Guru Nanak accepted and taught to live righteously. He didn’t condemn or judge anyone. He didn’t say "your religion is bad and you should follow my way."
While talking to my wife I was thinking about what factors made me want to live this lifestyle and what kept me on this path. Why did I live this path while other friends of mine chose to leave it? What made me stick to it? I found I couldn’t put it into words. It is a deep connection and sense of spirituality that keeps me connected. Part was being with the Sadh Sangat (other people who were on this spiritual path.) Religion is just something that connects and brings you back to your source (God in each of us). If you don’t feel that connection then it’s probably better to do something different.
I don’t relate to guilt or sin or rituals that only divide people. Every day is a moment to connect and relate to God in everything and everyone. This lifestyle is a technology, which, if you actually practice it will give you a certain result. We have tools to keep us in high spirits (chardikala) and help us stay connected. If I don’t do all my banis does that make me a bad Sikh? For me what counts is that I do things to go inside and connect with the God and my soul inside me. For me Sikhi isn’t about the things I’m "supposed to do" but the experience I actually have in relating to my soul and the souls of others around me. Living life is a fine art of balance!
When I was teaching the youth at camp I realized that most everyone had not been taught to meditate and how to go inside. We are taught to go to Gurdwara, do our nitnem, and sing along with shabads; but when do we go inside? There is a whole infinite world inside when we close our eyes. There are so many distractions outside and we are constantly being bombarded with stimuli. Often times in Gurdwara everyone is looking around watching people coming in and going out looking at what people are wearing. It is not normal to see much of the sangat with their eyes closed sitting up straight in meditation. We are not taught this. I like to sit right at the front of the Gurdwara right before Guruji and next to the musicians so that when my eyes are open I am not constantly being distracted by people around me and people coming in.
One of the things myself and Guruka worked on a lot at camp was teaching some very basic meditations to help the youth learn to go inside and have a different kind of experience. When you meditate you are not only cleaning out all the mental garbage that piles up every day but you increase your awareness and your intuition. That way you make good decisions and don’t need to think things out, you simply know what you should be doing. I’m sure you have had experiences where you go to pick up the phone and for some reason know who it is before they speak (and you didn’t look at the caller ID either!) We all have intuition but have not developed it through meditation.
At camp we started to teach meditation by practicing long deep breathing (Inhaling mentally chanting "Sat" and exhaling mentally chanting "Nam"). Slowly inhaling filling up your full lungs….holding the breath and then very slowly exhaling. You could see in their faces and state of being how different they felt after just a few minutes. They were centered and calm. They had an experience. It was so simple. Yet I don’t think they had an experience like this of just breathing and going inside. Closing our eyes is not some false ritual of trying to look holy. Next time you are in Gurdwara try closing your eyes, sit with your spine straight and start breathing really long and deep. Hear the Gurbani resound in your body and feel it fill you up. See how you feel after doing this for a while.
Each of us must develop our own personal relationship with our soul and with our Guru. We need to move beyond the outward expectations and judgments of other people and focus on ourselves. The more we spend "looking in the mirror" and working on our self, the more reality and value you will get from this path. Stop doing things by rote and bring meaning and experience to everything that you do so it gives your life value and does not become a chore.
Here is a new SikhNet audio story that Harijot Singh just finished making which I think is very much in line with what I have been thinking in this blog post. Have a listen to it below:
God In every Moment