Swami Sukhchaitanya was scheduled to speak from 1:00-4:00 p.m. on the third floor of a vacant office building in Den Haag. As we drove with a friend through the gray afternoon on our way to the event, we talked about the Art of Living. I have only been to one Art of Living event before, and that was a small yoga/meditation group held in someone’s home (See February 2011 post: Vicarious epiphany: Insights from The Art of Living and the process of letting go). I hadn’t studied anything about this organization since, so going to see the Swami felt like a big step. Yet, I was assured he was worth the trip and a very special person to encounter.
It wasn’t until we stepped off the elevator on the third floor and walked across the gray, spanking new office carpet that I thought about the awkwardness of the location. Weren’t Swami’s supposed to be surrounded by fresh flowers, candles, incense and golden orange swaths of fabric? How could this sterile environment, with white walls, double pained windows and lifeless recirculated air be an appropriate setting for a swami?
Although we arrived a bit early, there were already 30 or so people milling around mostly dressed in bright colors. Quite a few appeared to be Indian, Indonesian and other nationalities blessed with smooth and ageless brown skin. There were enough caucasian varieties in the mix for me to blend into the crowd. Arie Jan and his brother Cornelis who arrived later are too tall to ever blend in, but they were certainly not the only white males in the room.
After a few cups of ginger tea, we headed into the main hall. I must have seen a few swami videos in my time, because there, in the center of the room was a set up almost as I had envisioned it; a white couch, surrounded by orange swaths of fabric; two rather modern vases of purple flowers stood on the floor to each side of the couch; a small white table to the left held candles, and to the right was a keyboard and some other musical instruments and requisite microphones.
It started gradually with a warm up speaker who wore a white, gauzy eye patch over one eye under his glasses. Apparently, the eye patch had something to do with soaking his contact lenses in the wrong solution and then popping one in his eye–a disaster that ended in the emergency room. Despite the patch, this Indian man rallied the crowd with games, stretches, jokes and singing all geared toward bringing us into our bodies and making us light and happy. Thing is, you can’t make someone light and happy, but you can certainly try. And try he did. Yet it wasn’t until the arrival of the swami was announced an hour later that all the elements came together in a game.
“Swami Sukhchaitanya is here. But, before he comes in, we are going to do one more game.” What is it with these games, I thought irritably. In the next game, you chose a partner whom you didn’t know. I turned to a young woman sitting next to me in a bright magenta beaded top. She appeared to be in her mid twenties and had that beautiful, smooth Indian skin, long black curly hair and midnight eyes. Her name was Shanti, and she looked solid and friendly.
Here was the game: one person claps, and the other person does everything they can to stop the other person from clapping. Okay. Sounds simple enough. I was in group one, so I had to be the first person to clap. I was picturing something mild, but when the warm up speaker said “Go!” all mayhem broke loose. The beautiful, elegant Shanti pounced on me, grabbing my arms, twisting my hands apart and I started to run, really run. And not only had I underestimated her strength, but she was apparently a sprinter as well. I ran as if my life depended on it, as if someone was after my purse full of my life savings, but with happiness in my heart. She chased me fiercely, catching me part of the time before I could twist away and run again, this time with more will, more strength and more terrifying joy. Thing is, there were 103 other people in the room in the same exuberant pursuit! Total chaos.
“Switch!” called the speaker. Suddenly it was my turn to chase her and in a flash she was gone. I scanned the room and thanked the swami for her bright magenta top. I chased her with a childlike passion to win. I hopped over legs, swerved around chairs and flailing bodies and found her, grabbing on tightly only to be flung away. She squealed as she ran and I followed her, wanting nothing more in that moment than to stop those joyfully clapping hands.
And then it was over. And yet everything had changed. The room had transformed from a crowd of serene yet uncomfortable strangers in folding chairs to a room of people with bright eyes and childlike, delightful grins on their perspiring faces, exhausted and thankfully sitting down. The room was about 30 degrees warmer and someone had managed to open the windows. The cool air from outside met our warm air, and it was like we were all on a retreat together in the tropics to see a world-famous Swami rather than on the third floor of a vacant office building in Den Haag.
And that is when, legs crossed on the white couch, the Swami started to speak. He talked about the game and used the Socratic method to draw from us what we had learned. We had learned to be ecstatic. We had learned to be completely in the moment, instead of theoretically in the moment. We had learned about joy and embracing a stranger. There were many other lessons, but it all came back to the game, in one way or another.
Swami Sukhchaitanya did not fly in from India. Although Indian, he is a Canadian citizen and director of the Art of Living Foundation in Quebec. His long black beard and flowing black hair created a holy contrast to his flowing white robes, and he had the laid back attitude of a California surfer, but with the wisdom of a true Swami. His tips for enlightenment were certainly not new lessons, but the lessons nevertheless felt fresh from his lips. Happiness comes from within, and no one–not your boss, your spouse or any other person–has the right or ability to take that away from you. He also pointed out our assumptions about people and the way we describe others.
Many of his topics emerged from questions in the group. One person asked how some people can always be angry.
“You know that friend or uncle you have that is always angry? And you ask yourself, how can someone be angry all of the time?” The swami started. People around the room nodded knowingly. We all have that person in our lives, right? Wrong. “No one can be angry all of the time. Can you be angry while you sleep?” he said, making a face of someone sleeping with an angry disposition. “Or someone angry while they are brushing their teeth?” Once again, he scrunched up his serene face into a tight angry ball, with an imaginary toothbrush being thrust in and out of his mouth. We all ecstatically laughed our way into the knowledge he was providing. “That’s just not humanly possible. And further, we don’t like being put into boxes, and yet, we put other people in boxes all of the time.”
It was interesting being led through humor to see our own faults, and how we all shared these faults. This is the power of a great speaker. He or she can get inside your perspective and show you where things are a little tweaked, clean a spot on the lens you didn’t know was there. And they do so in such a disarming, selfless way, that we breathe in the criticism joyfully, receiving it like a bouquet of flowers someone has just delivered to us because we are willing to open our minds.
The question is, how long can you hold onto the lesson without a swami around? I suppose that depends on how much time you spend meditating and practicing the art of happiness, of peaceful communication or shall we say, The Art of Living.
Although the swami was here just a few weeks ago, I know by some of my actions, or reactions this week, that I am in desperate need of having my very own swami around to laugh me back into shape. Didn’t I just yesterday describe someone as “always mad?”
I’m not ready to become a devotee, but I am aware that my limited encounters with The Art of Living philosophy have set me straight and happy for a good week at a time. And in all my great flawed humanness, it would be healthy for all if I could extend this state of mind to a year round endeavor. And so a seed is planted.