The First Time

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I was blessed this past week to host two teenagers, Vijay and Bhavani, who were visiting the United States from Bangalore India.  Vijay and Bhavani come from a non profit boarding school called Shanti Bhavan, the only school of its type in the entire world.  Shanti Bhavan takes children from the lowest castes, the most impoverished regions of India, and educates them from pre school all the way through the completion of college.

Their graduates, armed with a world class education, become intelligent, conscious citizens.  Many work for top tier consulting firms, others have gone on to study nursing or author books.  All walk away with a firm commitment to return to their home communities and give back, eradicating generational debts, and helping to improve the poverty stricken regions from where they once came.

Vijay and Bhavani are sixteen, and overflowed with humor, energy and life.  Their visit to the United States was full of “firsts.”  Their first time on an escalator.  Their first time on an airplane.  Their first time eating bagels.  Their first time valet parking (“You mean you just hand them your car and keys?  What if they don’t bring it back?!”)

When they came to Orange County, we quickly discovered one more “first” that they wanted to squeeze in before returning to India.  They had not yet been to a beach.  And so together, along with Ajit George, the US Director of Operations for Shanti Bhavan, we headed to Crystal Cove, one of the most pristine stretches of California coastline.

The day was unseasonably cool and drizzly and overcast, yet we decided to throw on some sweatshirts and go anyway.  Grey clouds hung low, and a chilly breeze whipped in the air.  Only a few other people were in sight, walking along the damp sand, leaving behind pressed footprints.

As we walked down the slope towards the beach, Vijay and Bhavani took off, running towards the water, arms in the air.  “Wow!” they screamed, in awe of the vast expanse of water, the waves lapping up onto the sand, and the miles of stones, kelp, and other gems washed up onto the shore.  They knelt to take a closer look at the water.  Vijay walked right in, shoes and all.  Bhavani took her sandals off and felt the sand with her feet.  They both carefully selected colorful shells and bits of glass to take home to their friends who weren’t able to make the journey this time around.

I often describe mindfulness to my patients as a quality of attention, a way of attending to our life experiences, as if we were somehow noticing something for the very first time, and the very last time.  And as I watched these two souls, truly seeing the beach for the first time, and never knowing if they would see it again, I felt mindfulness embodied in front of me.  They were so fully engaged in the moment, soaking up every second with their breath, their hands, their eyes, their ears and noses.

This was the gift that they offered to me that day.  Writing about mindfulness, reading about mindfulness, teaching mindfulness, is all one thing, but living it, truly living it, is an entirely different matter.  For me, it is hard to shake myself out of my head, to break free of the tangled web of thinking about all of my experiences, rather than just being in direct contact with them.

But with them, I felt like, even if just for a moment, I saw the beach for the first time too.  I took my shoes off and felt the crunch of sand between my toes.  I smelled the salt in the air, and heard the rush of the waves that was at once loud and once peaceful.  Together we noticed all of the different shades of blue and green and grey, and the sparkles that all of a sudden danced upon the water when the sun emerged for a brief hello.

I took away many precious memories from my time with Vijay and Bhavani, but I think our trip to the beach was a true gift to me.  I realized viscerally that the beauty of noticing and being present with childlike curiosity, is that, for just a moment, you are more fully alive.

So today, and in the week ahead, I invite you to join me in trying to attend to our routine life experiences, as if through the lens of a child’s view.  What do you notice?

With gratitude, Monisha

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