Zach O'Brien
Zach O'Brien
India 2013-2014
VIEW FINAL REPORT
Namaste! I am a native Californian with a love for new experiences, meditation, and asking questions. I'm traveling to an Indian ashram called Amritapuri to join an environmental conservation project and study Sanskrit and yoga. Read More About Zach →

This is it!

Well, this is it!  I leave in a few hours from Amritapuri to Cochin Airport to fly back home to California.

I’ll admit I’m excited to be back home in San Diego and looking for a job back in the “real world”.  It will be good to be home. But right now I’m also sad, because these past six months in India have been some of the most beautiful, peaceful, adventurous, and interesting of my life.

DSCF0759

Stunning sunrise I woke up to recently. India is so saturated with beauty.

Reflecting back, it was awesome getting to know all three “branches” of the ecovillage:  composting, recycling, and farming.  I spent my first two months working in the composting unit, seen below.

DSCF0758

I learned a ton about the different kinds of compost, how to make it, and the science behind it.  As I mentioned in my post Composting Presentation, I got good enough at the process that I was able to lecture to a class about the art of composting.

After working in the composting unit, I applied my composting knowledge, working in several farms: a tea farm, a food forest, and a vegetable farm used for feeding the residents at the ashram in a sustainable manner.

015

DSCF0640

DSCF0772

These experiences was so wonderful for the IMMENSE amount of information I learned about gardening  from both college-educated farmers as well as native Indian farmers.  It was interesting to see different styles of farming, to learn the theory and application of it, and to just get to know the land itself in a way a textbook could never teach. Working with these individuals, we were able to pioneer various techniques, sometimes with success, other times with not so much success.  Many of our endeavors are still being observed, and the outcome of projects like the food forest will take years to be known.  Nonetheless, all of the data from these farms is being collected to be used in the 101 villages that Amritapuri is sponsoring to become sustainable and waste free.  It felt good knowing what we were doing was going to be used all over India, and was going to help out so many families.

Driving back home after a dung run with my fellow gardeners.  From left to right: Cittanand, Suprya, Mangela, Amritarotina, and me!

I met many wonderful people and formed several lasting friendships with my fellow farmers.  They won’t soon be forgotten by me.

I also worked in the recycling unit, mainly gathering trash and cleaning up waste that had been improperly disposed of.  We’d then take this waste back to the processing facility, seen below.

DSCF0757

Besides working in the ecovillage, I was also able to achieve some of my other goals. I recently submitted an economics article to several economics magazines/publications like Dollars and Sense.  No word back yet, but fingers crossed I get published.  The article was about altruism and incentives, and addresses my volunteer work here at Amritapuri.  These themes might sound familiar, as they should, because I based my blog post “Economic Dynamics in Small Communities” on my article.

On top of all this, these six months in India facilitated getting to know the culture and learn some of the south Indian Malayalam language.

 

I and my friend Solomon, who I wrote about in "Trip to Bangalore".

I and my friend Solomon, who I wrote about in “Trip to Bangalore”.

 

I also got to practice plenty of yoga and meditation at the ashram itself (no pictures because they’re VERY strict about prohibiting photography :) ).  This seemed to give a certain continuity and ease to everything I was doing throughout my time in India, even at times when I’d spend six or eight hours in a day toiling on a farm in the hot sun.

I hope to use much of what I’ve learned back in the US.  I’ve already promised my mom I’ll rework out backyard garden using some of the cool techniques I’ve learned, like hugelculture (hugelculture planting beds store water because they’re built on rotting wood, and right now California’s in a 500 year drought, so water conservation is of the essence).  I’m also strongly attempting to get involved with farming at our local Zen center–they already have an avocado orchard, and dozens of fertile, unused acres of land.  I’d like to get volunteers set up planting this land with traditional oolong teas and vegetables that can be sold at the local farmers market to raise money for the center. Fingers crossed this works out!

To conclude, words cannot express the gratitude I have for the Lumos Foundation and the provisions they’ve made to allow me to travel to India!  It’s been an amazing six months, and I can’t wait to present on my experiences at Belmont in a few months.

Composting presentation

Amritapuri’s ecovillage offers “Get Growing” classes and workshops which are oriented around teaching visitors (mostly westerners) the fundamentals of organic and sustainable farming.

Recently I was asked to give a talk on composting to the would-be farmers and gardeners of “Get Growing”.  For much of my stay in Amritapuri I’ve been in charge of composting for the tea farm, so I took everyone out to where the action was happening to provide visual aid.

DSCF0637

Above is the “finished” pile of compost I showed the crew.  Finished compost smells good, so I had everyone take a handful and smell it. If your compost smells rotten then it means it got too hot and the anarobic bacteria took over the decomposing process, producing byproducts that are bad for your plants.  How hot is too hot?  We use a thermometer, and once we get readings above 70-75 degrees Celsius, we know the pile has heated up too much.  Another method I like to use is to dig my hand into the middle of a still-composting pile–if it’s too hot for me to keep my hand in, then it’s probably too hot.  So far that method’s worked great for me and the garden.

DSCF0638

Next I showed the class the “still composting” pile. I also had them grab a handful from this pile–and squeeze it.  Compost needs moisture for the good, arobic bacteria to do their job of decomposing viable organic matter. Too much moisture will prevent the pile from heating up enough though.  I try to keep these piles just moist enough that they’re on the brink of dripping moisture when you squeeze a handful.

DSCF0697

The pile above is my “hands off” pile.  Normally compost piles should be turned once or twice a week, but this pile is not very dense and doesn’t get watered so there’s not much danger of it heating up too much.  It’s really more of a very, very thick mulch.

Indians were dumping waste in this corner of our garden, so much so that not even many weeds were growing in this section, so I cleared out as much garbage as I could, then filled in the area with several feet of organic matter. On the bottom I put branches and logs, then above that twigs and green leaves, and I’m in the process of adding a final layer of brown leaves.  The lumber will retain water, providing moisture for new life that will begin growing on top after the brown leaves have fully composted.

DSCF0698

Finally, we went to check out the worm composting bin pictured above.  Worm composting is a little different than regular composting–you feed the worms a layer of organic material a few inches thick that is to be laid down on top.  The compost is never turned (by humans at least–worms do all the turning themselves).  The soil should be more moist than regular compost, so that when you squeeze a handful of soil it does drip slightly.

I enjoyed teaching the Get Growing class the fundamentals of composting, and I hope you learned a bit too reading this post!

New projects

New projects have been in the works lately around the ecovillage and it’s been quite exciting.

First, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on creating a food forest.   The idea behind a food forest is that multiple varieties of plants are planted to create several layers of food producing flora.

DSCF0640

Above is a picture of the food forest we’re planting. As you can see, there are several mature coconut palms already in place.  The palms, along with rudraksha trees we will be planting, comprise the top layer of our food forest.  The mid layer of our food forest will consist of papaya, mango, almond, banana, and several other species of fruit trees native to India.  Other than a few mature papaya trees you can see in the photo, most of the trees I mentioned are still seedlings we have planted.  Finally, the bottom layer consists of tomato, gourd, lady fingers, corn, and many other fruit and vegetable plants. We’re just planting this layer now.

We like the idea of a food forest for a lot of reasons.  Firstly, a major problem we’ve encountered in our farms in India is that crops tend to get scorched by the hot sun.  We’ve found beds tend to do best when the fall beneath the shade of a tree.  Creating a tree canopy for an entire field is a logical extension of this idea.  Another reason beds might do better under trees is that there is significant biological evidence that biodiversity improves the soil by allowing plants to share beneficial root microbes and fungi with each other.  Obviously in the wild, plants don’t pop up in nice square beds containing one and only one species, so this idea makes sense.  Finally, we think the food forests will increase crop yields because of the vertical stacking of the food-bearing layers.

John Keisner, the westerner who is overseeing the project to export the Amritapuri ecovillage model to 101 Indian villages,  has been working extensively with our group and observing our work.  If this food forest idea turns out well (and I think it will), there’s a good chance it will end up in lots of Indian villages around the country!

Another project I’ve been working on has been recycling clean up.  This involves trekking around with a big cart and picking up plastic, construction materials, and other waste that’s been left lying around on the side of the road or elsewhere.  It’s a little frustrating because the work is seemingly never ending.  Nonetheless I’ve been inspired by the importance of reclaiming land that’s full of waste.  Below is a picture of a corner of the tea farm where the locals had been dumping garbage.  I pulled out as much waste as I could, then laid down several feet of organic material.  Once the stuff composts, I’m hoping to plant some vegetables there to discourage people from dumping waste.

DSCF0639

A canine companion comes to the rescue

It’s impossible to travel for a long time in a foreign country without ending up in a few difficult–or sometimes even downright dangerous–situations.  Every seasoned traveler knows this is basically a law of travel.

I was recently reminded of this law one ordinary evening after enjoying a beautiful sunset.DSCF0446

Above is said sunset.  I found this epic vantage point about a mile away from my room.

Anyway, I’ve often heard Indians advise me to avoid staying out late. I generally follow the suggestions I get from the locals, but I figured this time I could make an exception, because it felt so wonderful and serene just soaking in the evening river sights and sounds.

Well, after it got too dark to see much, I decided to get heading back. Pretty soon, I made the uncomfortable realization that some animals seemed to be following me.  I rounded a bend and found a group of four to six snarling dogs looking straight at me.

I felt the hair stand up on my arms and back.  I noticed the hair standing up on the dog’s backs as well.

Suddenly, another dog came running over to me from a different direction. I prepared to defend myself, but instead it ran right past me and started furiously barking and growling at the group of other dogs. After a brief standoff, the other dogs amazingly seemed to back off.  I edged to the side of the road, then proceeded ahead.  My canine friend kept yapping at the other dogs.

But pretty soon he joined me for the walk.  In fact, we walked a full mile together in the dark.  I can’t remember the last time I was so grateful for a travelling companion.  I would turn a corner, then he would turn a corner; I’d stop and he’d stop. I kept expecting him to lose interest, but he stayed with me the whole way.

After I got back to civilization, I gave him a scratch on the head, we locked eyes for a couple seconds, and he was off, just like that.

I don’t know what motivated my canine companion to bark at the other dogs, or to stick with me while I wandered through an unsafe area.  Was he/she protecting me? Or did the dog just want food?

I’ll never really know.  What do you think?

Economic dynamics in small communities

I’m going to take a break from my series of posts about working on the tea farm to touch on a more or less unrelated topic–economics.  I’m currently writing a paper about some economics observations I’ve made regarding the ashram community I’m living in.  I’d like to briefly toss some of my musings your way.

I’m going to begin with some data that I find very interesting: in the Amritapuri ashram where I’m staying, the entire system (food, administration, waste management, etc.) is run almost completely by volunteers.  The ashram contains up to 2000 long-term residents and up to 3000 transient visitors at any given time. None of these volunteers are required to carry out these duties; if any given resident decides to be lazy and not show up to volunteer, the are few or no official repercussions, and the individual is certainly not asked to leave the ashram.  Yet an inquiry into the ashram record books indicated that around 90% of residents show up to their daily ashram volunteer jobs (it follows 10% don’t).

From a simplistic classical economic standpoint that regards people and institutions as utility maximizing units, and wealth as an effective measure of utility, the absence rate should be 100% and the ashram should be in a state of inoperation.  A more savvy model might theorize that people don’t just care about money–they care about the opinions of their peers too.  In order to maximize utility, individuals will perform work responsibilities in order to attract the esteem and avert the disdain of others.

From my casual observations though, it seems unlikely this is really how things are working around the ashram.  For one, volunteers are usually divided into small groups that only rarely directly interact with other groups.  I mentioned in an earlier post how the ecovillage farm is divided into many plots of land scattered through Vallikavu; on the ~1 acre plot of tea farm that I’ve been working on lately, I work with only 4 other volunteers.  If I suddenly stopped showing up to work, only those four people would know, and my social life in india would continue unfazed (and I doubt even my four coworkers would be very bothered anyhow).

Here’s another candidate explanation: In biological systems involving groups, game theory appears to often be a force governing action and cooperation.  For instance, families (human or otherwise) often exist as units where the individual members consistently sacrifice their immediate best interest for the best interest of the group as a whole.  This type of situation is sometimes modeled as a game theoretic equilibrium, where the members involved can monitor other individuals and send signals (such as insubordination or laziness) if some group members are slacking on their duties.

Selfishness remains dormant as an obstacle to cooperation–until the size of the group expands.  As the number of members in a group increases, individuals’ ability to monitor and send signals to a significant portion of the group decrease very quickly, the equilibrium falls apart, and the group falls back into chaos. This type of analysis would explain why families can function well on the principle “from each according to his (or her) ability, to each according to his (or her) need”, but communist nations tend suffer severely from a lack of incentivization when they adopt the same principle.

So even in a group the size of Amritapuri, it seems unlikely that game theoretic explanations lie at the heart of the incredible cooperation I see between volunteers.

I think the most sensible way to analyze the situation is to model individuals as having not one but two utility curves–one for themselves and one for others.   I believe individuals are naturally altruistic, that our mind itself is predisposed to act in other’s best interest, as well as our own best interest.  Amritapuri can work, simply because humans are wired in such a way that they try to make it work–not just for selfish reasons, but for the good of everybody involved.

Now, if we’re going to model individuals as having both selfish and altruistic utilities, we’ll also have to admit that not all utility curve frontiers are created with equal circumferences–some extend not just to peers but to all humans or even all beings in the whole universe, while others seem to require a magnifying glass to be seen with the naked eye.  Certainly recent research in psychology has indicated altruism and empathy are traits that can be cultivated through practice.  Amritapuri probably functions as well as it does because it contains a high percentage of individuals who devote a lot of their life to expanding the reaches of their altruistic aspirations.  I doubt the volunteer system would perform so well in say, an inner city in the US (although who knows!).

Anyway, I think as an economist the moral I’m going to take away from this experience is that traditional economic analysis can sometimes be too quick to explain human economic activity in terms of complex models, like game theory, when in reality the simplest and most obvious explanation is that many activities are undertaken with the interests of others in mind–not all human actions originate purely from self-centered aims.

Gardening, part 4: soil experiment

As I mentioned in my first post, Black Bug Invasion, the recent destruction of our tea crop has given us the opportunity to reassess the gardening techniques we use and to experiment with new approaches.

One way we’re doing this is by planting our new crop of tea plants in three distinct types of soil environments. As our tea matures, we’ve been gaining valuable information on what helps and what hinders the growth of a healthy tea bush.

DSCF0287

Above is a photo of the first type of bed we planted.  It’s the same type of bed we’ve been using all along, so nothing too exciting is happening.  Basically, we mixed red sand, white sand, and compost in equal parts and laid it down roughly 6 inches deep. Beneath that is pure white sand which is natural to the area because we’re planting next to a beach (luckily tulasi thrive in sandy conditions).  Finally, we create holes 6 inches in depth and diameter and fill them with “amendments”– a mixture of vermicompost, dried cow dung, and effective microorganism powder.  Oh, and we also outfitted the beds with drip watering systems. 😉 We then plant the baby tulasi bushes in these holes.

DSCF0286

This next photo is of one of the “raised beds” we have planted.  These raised beds are filled with rotting wood for the first 1 to 2 feet.  After that we lay down 6 inches of brown leafy material, a few inches of green leafy material, then sand.  The top six inches of the soil in the raised beds are dealt with in exactly the same way as in the unraised bed.

DSCF0285

We’re only just now getting around to planting this last type of tea bed.  It’s probably our most experimental.  To create the bed, we laid down cardboard at ground level.  On top of the cardboard we put effective microorganism powder, and on top of this we laid down 4 to 6 inches of pure fresh cow dung.  On top of this we put down a few inches of completed compost, and at the very top we put a little bit of still-composting material.  In the case of this bed we weren’t able to plant right away–we had to wait for the dung and compost to fully decompose.  (we only put down unfinished compost because we didn’t have access to sufficient finished compost at the time). Luckily we were able to obtain some fully composted dung, and we recently planted a few trial tulasi in these areas as you can see in the photo above.

So you’re probably wondering–which beds turned out the best??

As of right now, the tulasi plants in the raised beds are clearly the healthiest.  Raised beds seem to be better able to retain water–we don’t have to turn the drip system on nearly as frequently as in the flat beds, and the soil is much more consistently moist.  Moreover, when the monsoon season comes in a few months, the tea will also be protected from any standing water that may form during particularly torrential phases.

Although it may be too early to tell with the dung beds, it seems a lot of the tulasi in these beds are turning out sickly and weak.  Dung may be quite nutrient rich, but I think the tulasi feel much more at home in their native environment–sand!

Gardening, Part 3: DIY organic fertilizer!

Yesterday in the garden we fertilized the tea plants.

IMG_8630

We have two fertilizer mixtures we use, and we try to set aside one day each week to use one or the other.  I’m going to share both the recipes with you so you can use these organic fertilizers in your own garden!

The first fertilizer is called Jivamritam (wish I knew what this translates to in English). The recipe is for 200 liters, and we usually make several batches.  For the average backyard gardener this recipe may need to be significantly reduced.  Just make sure to reduce all the ingredients proportionately!

Here’s how you make it:

•5 kg dried dung

•1 liter composted cow dung

•1 liter fresh worm compost–worms removed :)

•1 liter Neem Cake

•1 handful of good soil

•1/2 liter EM (efficient microorganisms)

•1.5 kg gram flour

•1 kg compost

•5 liters cow urine

•Several handfuls of sugar (use only if you want a bacterial soil. If you want a fungal soil, leave the sugar out!)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Fill 50gal/200liter bucket 1 quarter of the way to the top with water.
  2. Mix in ingredients with stick (be especially careful with the flour as it tends to clump together—mix it in slowly!)
  3. Add water to within 6 inches of the top of the bucket while you’re mixing.
  4. Once everything is fully mixed in, let bucket sit with a cloth covering the top.
  5. Stir in the morning and the evening. Stirring method is such that you should stir clockwise, then counter clockwise, then in figure 8’s.  Change from one to the next stirring direction once you see you’ve got a good current going in one direction.
  6. After 48 hours of this, jivamritam is ready to use.
  7. Pour 0.5-1 liter on wet soil at the  base of each plant you want to fertilize.  Do not pour on plant leaves. If the soil is sandy or very hard, it can help to poke a few holes around the plant before you pour (don’t poke too close or you’ll damage the roots!) Don’t water plant for 12 hours after applying jivamritam.

IMG_8631

The next fertilizer is my favorite.  It’s called a “compost tea”.  It doubles up as both a fertilizer and a completely safe/organic pesticide!

Here’s how the compost tea is made:

•1 handful Sheena Kona leaves (or really any fresh green leaves that are high in nitrogen).

•1 kg fresh compost

•1/2 kg fresh vermicompost

•1 handful raggi flour

•1 handful soil from around a healthy plant

•1 handful leaf mulch

•1/4 liter EM

DIRECTIONS

  1. Put all the ingredients except for the EM in a gardening tea bag.
  2. Put the EM into a 25 gal/100 liter bucket, and fill a quarter of the way up with water.
  3. Add teabag to water. Pump bag in water, sloshing vigorously.  Work contents with hands.  Do this for 10 minutes.
  4. Add fresh water to the top of the bucket.
  5. Apply right away (the sloshing procedure is supposed to create an aerobic environment—this discourages growth of anaerobic bacteria which are generally bad for the soil.) Pour half a liter on the plant’s leaves and half a liter at the base of the plant.  The tea should be very liquidy. If you get to the bottom of the bucket and the tea becomes a bit sludgy, add a little more water before applying, because the sludge will hurt the plant leaves.

IMG_8632

Learning how to make and use fertilizer is just one of the neat things I’ve been learning while working in the garden.  The more I help growing tea, the more I realize how scientific agriculture can be.  Currently my supervisor is having me read a book called Teaming With Microbes. Basically the book is about the organisms that live in healthy soil, and how to cultivate a soil that is conducive to a healthy and sustainable food web.  The cool thing is, we actually make gardening decisions on a daily basis using the scientific information contained in this and many other books and articles. For instance, the reason I included the bit about only using sugar in the jivamritam recipe if you want a bacterial soil is, we noticed a lot of annual weeds growing in the tea garden.  We found some research indicating that annual and short-term plants do well in bacteria-dominated soil while trees and bushes like tea do better in fungus-dominated soil.  Since sugar encourages bacteria growth, we decided to stop using it in the fertilizer.  If we start seeing perennial instead of annual weeds sprouting up, we’ll know we gaged things correctly—fingers crossed!

Anyway, growing plants is a fun process, and I hope any gardeners out there reading this post can make use of the organic fertilizer recipes I’ve included.

Gardening, part 2: dung run

Recently, my supervisor in the garden, Suprya, received word that several local farmers were dumping their cow dung in the village backwaters (which also happens to be the place where the ashram and the villagers get their water from. ) We were currently in the process of replanting most of the tulasi that had just been decimated by a black bug invasion, and since the replanting process required lots of dung, she decided to kill two birds with one stone by sending groups of us gardeners out into the town to gather cow dung from the more than willing farmers to bring back and use in the garden.

The people in the village were so warm and kind.  This girl introduced us to her puppy!

The people in the village were so warm and kind. This girl introduced us to her puppy!

The whole process took a couple weeks.  Although I’m sure many people would balk at the idea of spending hours a day digging up cow manure and transporting it, it was rewarding knowing we were indirectly cleaning the village’s water source.  Everyone I worked with had fantastic attitudes, so going on “dung runs” actually ended up being a lot of fun.  Just look at our happy faces in the picture below!

Driving back home after a dung run with my fellow gardeners.  From left to right: Cittanand, Suprya, Mangela, Amritarotina, and me!

Driving back home after a dung run with my fellow gardeners. From left to right: Cittanand, Suprya, Mangela, Amritarotina, and me!

As you can see in the next picture, often times the dung heaps had partially composted before we got to them, so it wasn’t AS smelly of a mess as you might expect.

DSCN1989

We found more than our fair share of creepy bugs crawling among the dug heaps we dug through.

DSCN1986

 

I even pretended to eat one.

018

 

All in all, the experience was enriching, both for the soil in the garden and for the relationships between me, my coworkers, and the townspeople.

Gardening, part 1: black bug invasion

My primary objective in coming to India was to volunteer at the ashram’s ecovillage.  I spent my first two months here working in the ashram’s composting facility.  I’m now in the middle of a two month stint working on “the farm”, which is really a collection of separate plots of  land, owned by the ashram, and spread all over the village of Vallikavu.  The plot of land I happened to end up working on is the tulasi tea garden.  I want to spend the next few posts talking specifically about the work I’ve been doing in the ashram’s tea garden.

Tulasi garden backyard

Above is a photo of the tulasi garden’s “backyard”.  Isn’t it beautiful? Behind the garden is a lake.  Although you can’t see it in this photo, the sun is rising over the water.

We’ve also got a side yard and front yard that are roughly the same size as the back.  They’re not quite as aesthetically pleasing but the tulasi don’t seem to mind.

Anyway, I’ve quickly learned that growing tea can be a roller coaster ride.  There are the highs–as small as the garden is, when it has a good year, it can produce one to several million dollars worth of tea leaves.  Some of the tea is used for ceremonial purposes or brewed in the coffee shop at the ashram. The rest is sold to fund the ashram, the ecovillage, and humanitarian efforts like the Amrita Self-Reliant Village Program (more about this program to come).

But there is also the painstaking work involved in growing tulasi tea. On a weekly basis, each individual plant will be fertilized with a cow dung/urine mixture.  We’ll wash it’s leaves in neem oil to prevent aphid infestations, and we’ll also cover the plant in ash to discourage other pests.  Finally,  each plant is individually watered using a method where we poke holes in the soil around the plant and fill the holes with water.  We do this because tulasi thrives in sandy conditions, and  so water tends to run off the soil’s surface unless it’s directed right to the roots.

Finally, there are the lows.  If you look back at the garden photo, you’ll notice it doesn’t look like there’s a million dollars worth of tea sprouting up.  This is because an infestation of insects (we refer to to them simply as “the black bugs”. I wish I had something a little more biologically precise than that) recently came and decimated our entire crop over a period of several weeks. While this has been a huge bummer for the crew working in the garden, it’s also provided us with an opportunity to research and explore new approaches.  As we plant a new crop, we’re experimenting with several different types of soil environments and beds.  I’ll try to share something about soil environments at some point in this series of posts.  I’ll also share some other gardening techniques I’ve learned, and maybe even a few funny stories from the garden will make their way in.

The privilege of spending time with the dying

These last few weeks I’ve taken on a job in the ashram’s hospital in addition to the work I’ve been doing at the ecovillage.  Every few days I spend the afternoon watching over Archan, a 90 year old man who’s spent the last few months in the hospital trying to recover from a perforated lung and a broken hip. He’s partially deaf, completely blind, and seems to be descending into a haze of confusion that often prevents him from recognizing his children, old friends, and caretakers.

At times it can be heartrending seeing Archan suffer and lose basic capacities like the ability to go to the bathroom on his own.    However, working with Archan has really become the highlight of my week and has turned into a sort of meditation for me.

When I’m not assisting in tasks like feeding Archan or changing his diapers, I like to rest my hand on Archan’s shoulder to let him know I’m there.  Archan LOVES physical touch and usually responds by nuzzling his head against my arm, almost like a little kid would.  As we share this form of connection, I like to silently chant a compassion mantra that goes something like this:

May I be free from suffering...

May Archan be free from suffering...

May all being be free from suffering...

I pray first for myself because as I allow the mantra to bring me into the present moment, I’m often confronted with a subtle feeling of uneasiness toward Archan, or specifically his condition; at some point I’m inevitably reminded of the uncomfortable fact that someday I’m probably going to look and feel just like Archan, and that’s not a warm, fuzzy thought.

Through this exercise I’ve gotten to experience something really wonderful though.  I’ve found out that if I can just relax and get comfortable with the heightened awareness of death I sometimes feel around Archan, my heart naturally and effortlessly responds with compassion for myself, then eventually for Archan.  In the rare moments when I can really get still, I catch glimpses of the possibility of expanding these feelings out in ever widening ripples to other people, animals, plants.  Supposedly compassion can become as wide and expansive as the whole universe.  I can’t even imagine that possibility at this point but it’s a work in progress.

I think we tend to think of compassion as something we have to emotionally scrunch up and try really hard to feel, or even as something that is impossible to feel unless we have faith in a higher power or an intrinsic meaning to the human existence.  I think people can often feel that it’s naive to believe real compassion can exist in a world that seems to run biologically via natural selection or politically via cutthroat competition and capitalism.

But instead, my experience with Archan suggests to me that there is an amazing simplicity to compassion.  All you have to do is create just enough space to allow the heart to open a little, and compassion will begin flowing out spontaneously.  Compassion is the heart’s natural response to suffering.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by Jennifer Wellwood I recently stumbled across.  It’s a bit melodramatic, but I feel it really captures the attitude of openness and relaxation toward mortality I’ve found to be key in cultivating compassion for the sick and dying.  Try embracing the impermanence of your own and your loved ones’ existences.  You just might be surprised by the empathy and compassion that begins to flow from your heart.

Tonight, Pluto, with the crescent moon as my witness,
I welcome you as my lover.
If you have come to break down my door,
See, I have opened it,
And wait here for you at its threshold.
If you have come to tear off my clothes,
I have flung them aside already,
And stand naked, shivering gladly.
If you have come to hurl me into the abyss,
Watch now, as I release all false supports, one by one,
And fall toward you in ecstasy.
Hear this, Pluto, lord of transformative fire:
What you have come to take from me, I offer you.

May you and I enjoy many, many more years on this beautiful planet, and may we grow in the kind of grace and courage that allows us to face the impermanence of human existence without anxiety.  :)

(Update:  I found out several hours after writing this post that Archan suddenly and unexpected passed away earlier today.  The cause of death is supposedly listed as “old age”. It’s been such a privilege being around for the final days of another human being.  Archan will never know the value of the lessons his caretakers and I learned simply by being around him for the final leg of his journey.)