Sai Labor Day Retreat 2017
Retreat summary report 1
Speakers: Dr. Ravi Mariwalla. Dr. Mariwalla was blessed to be a student of Swami's for 23 years. He worked at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences Hospital for 14 years as a Clinical Perfusionist and Manager of the Cardiac Suite. (A clinical cardiovascular perfusionist is a doctor who maintains blood flow to the body's tissues during operations when the heart needs to be stopped.)
Andres Zambrano, from Venezuela, has been with Swami since his birth. He now lives in N. Carolina and teaches bhajans.
Cedar Ridge Conference Center, Vernonia (about 1 mile west of Portland, and easy to access) was the first time our retreat took place there. It was beautiful, the buildings well-organized, the space well-suited to our needs, and the accommodation (ladies and gents in separate facilities) very comfortable. It is considerably cheaper than Silver Falls, since there was no resident chef.
As usual, the invisible team behind all, had done a wonderful job, with such dedication and devotion that it quite took your breath away. Apparently, Brother Sitaram (with his team) had inspected many other sites, and then had visited Cedar Ridge 20 more times until he finally made up his mind. One wonders where he found the time to work. He must have stayed up late many, many nights to make that time up. It takes dedication and determination to ensure that amount of perfection in performing Swami's work!
Jay, from Washington, had come down in a U-haul van with all the altar furniture and decorations and Swami's chair. Everything played out in front of a back drop of lovely, golden drapes hung elegantly over dark purple ones. Jay has had all these custom made. Just for us! And the stunningly beautiful flowers came down with Jay also, and touched up by Diane (to put in Swami's vibrations!) Jay put in a phenomenal amount of work, also, both beforehand and during the retreat. And he too looked as thoroughly unflustered and unstressed, available and loving and on-hand for any exigency.
And then there was Sreemanth, that technological genius! Sreemanth was in charge of all the electronics. As we all know, electronics rarely behave entirely properly, they always have their 'moments' and can go very wrong at the worst moments, leaving most of us completely powerless and frustrated (and angry!) Technology was supposed to make our lives much easier; we have all learnt that this is only so if there is someone around who is ahead of the game. This is Sreemanth! A sister had the idea that somehow the proceedings should be relayed down to the kitchen so that our poor sisters and brothers there, who could not attend any of the retreat, because they were being dedicated seva dals, could then hear the talks. 'Well, Sreemanth has already figured this out for this year, and all the seva dals in the kitchen were already listening to the talks happening in the main hall.' the coordinator had told the group.
Alan, from southern Oregon, was in charge of sound, and, as usual, sat in the center in front of a very large, flat device, full of buttons, that only an expert like he could possibly understand.
And there were, of course, all the kitchen workers, of whom there were many – many had given up the ripe fruits of the retreat to humbly work for the rest of us, so that we might walk away with the satisfactions and experiences that would teach us how to enrich our lives. They all worked under Radhika, and Shanta, who was her right-hand man. Radhika proved a master of delegation! She had to be: she had an army to feed! And she has a humor and a warmth which is infectious, and which enables her to recruit anyone at the drop of a hat! Shanta was tireless in her hard work and her dedication. The mountains of food they had to purchase (much fresh from farms) and transfer to the walk-in fridge and shelves was something to witness. And then there was all the preparation and the serving. Many hands were required, and some requisitioned on the spot during the proceedings. But all went wonderfully smoothly, and the fare was quite delicious, with yoghurt, not bought, but made at home by Bhuvana Aunty.
There were beautiful banners with names like Bliss, Harmony, Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema on all the wooden buildings; there were name tags for all of us, badges, another wonderful, simpler altar in the dining hall.
There were many more wonderful servers during this retreat, that I never got to know, but to them too, we send our love and gratitude.
What can be achieved by 'Community' - by many minds and hearts drawn together for a higher purpose - is an amazing thing!
I was interested to see that the manager of the place came to attend the first sessions. He ended up by attending it all! There is some feedback there too!
I, your writer, was not able to attend on the Saturday, so my report is necessarily very truncated. However, I was so impressed and so very moved by both Ravi's and Andres' talks and bhajan contributions that I have felt compelled (moved by Swami) to record what I did experience during the one and a half days I was in attendance.
I arrived to hear some of Ravi's talk. He is so powerful, so dynamic, I could well understand how everyone in the breaks spoke so warmly of him. He shared an incident in the hospital in Puttaparthi, where the operation had not gone well. Ravi was disappointed and dejected, thinking the procedure had failed (which on occasion it must do) and almost inexplicably since it was so unexpected. But the patient's heart could not be revived after the operation, however much the team tried. Feeling sad for the patient and his family Ravi stepped outside the theatre and went to the locker room to find some refreshment in his locker. He saw there was a cleaner in the locker room, and on a closer look it was not the usual person. Upon looking further, he recognized a very senior member of staff. There she was, down on her hands and knees, not using a long mop, but doing it in the most menial way, but the way that is the most thorough. Upon questioning her, he learnt the usual cleaner was not available and that she had stepped in – in just the way that Swami would have wanted. Ravi was impressed with her humility. And then his thoughts returned to the operation, and he suddenly realized that he had not done the obvious thing, which was to pray to Swami to perhaps discover why the patient had to die. He prayed briefly to Swami, and then returned to the theatre, only to find the staff were smiling and looking very happy. 'What's up with you?' he had asked. 'What's the matter with you?' they had responded. 'Nothing's the matter with me; it's you. Whatever are you all smiling for when the patient has just d......?' (Ravi had explained they hate to use the words – death, dead, died!) 'Well, he's not dead,' they had told him. 'He has come back to life! Look, look at the monitor! See that healthy beat!' And he looked at the monitor and saw, indeed, it was a very healthy heart! That is what Swami did in answer to that prayer! He brought a man back to life, restored a member to its family! How many people did that affect for the good? What a responsibility – those of us on God's path – have! We can make such a difference, by only calling on God to help. We so often forget to pray, to talk to Swami, Ravi told us. We leave him out of our situations so often. And it is these very situations, the difficult spots in life, that we most need to talk to him. We think, so much of the time, that we are the doer, that everything depends on us, that we are the movers in life. In fact, we are all moving to a plan, and, knowing that, could bring such relief to us. It does not mean we can rest, and let the Master pull the strings. We are not puppets. We are actors on the stage of our own life, and we can perform our parts well or not. But we should always remember to put our lives in His hands, and then we would not feel so stressed, and so inadequate, when we apparently 'fail'. That 'failure' may just be part of the plan for us. Maybe a cue to move on to another job.
One aid, he told us, is to look at Swami's picture, and often. Look at all the details – the hair, the eyebrows, the eyes, the robe, the folds in the robe. If we do this, Ravi told us, it becomes like a beautiful meditation.
He also told us another story in his lunch break (as with all Swami's speakers, he did not seem to tire, did not need a break, but was happy to go on and on talking about Swami and how we may help ourselves). He went back to the time of the first Super Specialty Hospital. At that time, he had told his students that now big corporations and rich individuals would follow suit, and build such hospitals (free) all over India. This did not happen. So, soon afterwards, Swami took it upon himself to build a second hospital in Whitefield, Bangalore. The Trust told Him He could not go ahead with this plan, as there was no money at all in the fund with which to do this. Swami went ahead anyway and started building. When it was complete there were no doctors to staff it, and multiple other problems. It was suggested a video be made of the Puttaparthi hospital and sent to all the centers and, hopefully, money might start flowing in. Swami turned this proposal down, saying 'No advertising, no advertising at all!' Another idea was to charge patients $10. After all, they said, a heart procedure cost $3,000. $10 would be nothing. 'No,' Swami had said. 'All my hopsitals are free, totally free!' He came up with his own idea to to acquire doctors. He asked doctors in Bombay to give one week of their vacation to Swami and to work free for Him. Plenty volunteered, and He flew them down to Bangalore and back again. But, said Ravi, all this huge stress put a huge toll on Swami's body. And we all looked at the picture in front of us, in the dining hall, where Swami is not His vibrant, younger self, but a sick man, aging. I think we all felt a huge pang of compassion for Swami, imagining what He had put himself through. We forget that as well as being Divine, he is also half human, and that His human body did indeed go through all the effects of stress and anxiety, just as we do. 'But,' said Ravi, 'that is what Swami also came down to experience – the travails of wordly life, that prevails at present on earth, and that we are all subject to. I, your reporter, will no longer look critically at these pictures of Swami, thinking that a better, more beautiful picture could have been used. Looking at them will remind me of the suffering that Swami put Himself through for our sake.
Ravi, apparently, told everyone to beware of keeping up with the news, whether it be by reading it, listening to or watching it. Some devotee had, on an occasion, read a newspaper. After finishing it, he became aware of a huge drop in his energy. It took him a whole day to restore it by singing and reading Swami's discourses. Keeping up with the news certainly keeps us in a depressed state – something I believe most people are not aware of.
On Sunday, Padmashree and Venu had arranged a panel discussion for six senior devotees. There was a wealth of material that came forth from these devotees and the audience listened with great interest. One gentleman shared that he had become bankrupt after trying to start up his own company. Not long after he was in Florida, and there he had met Brother Harish. After getting to know each other for a short time, Brother Harish told our friend that Microsoft was opening a whole raft of new positions, and he should apply. This devotee did just that and landed a job, and so he was once again in a solvent position. He also shared that, as a boy, his father had taken him to Prasanthi Nilayam. His father had been offered Padnamaskar, which he had taken with gratitude and devotion. His son, however, approached it automatically, without the realization of the blessing. Ravi had told us that he used to count the number of times he received Padnamaskar in one day, and they could amount of twenty nine. Our panel member ruefully told he as not offered the opportunity for something like another nineteen years. He had to learn of blessings. Another panellist (your reporter) shared that her life had been an 'up and down' one with many difficult situations to endure. She had always prayed for the strength to get through them, and also for them to 'go away'. Very recently, she had realized what gifts these situations in fact are, and that to pray for them to depart would be very sad, for then they would have to come again in another guise. Now, she no longer prays for their departure, but, rather, that she may learn the lesson from them, learn to completely accept the discomfort, transform that into comfort, and be at complete ease both with the situation and with the people causing those situations, which, in her case, was/is family. (We can rest assured that our most painful lessons in life are almost always going to be in the family!) She had also learned never to retaliate, but just to accept. That actually puts you immediately into a position of power, strangely enough. Then she acknowledged the enormous energy that the retreat was generating for everyone participating, and felt that community was so essential. There are aspects of life where we achieve little on our own, but vast wealth when in community.
The YAs performed their offering to Swami on the Saturday evening. Apparently this was something quite awesome, and everyone was very impressed with the work that Sister Harsha and others had put in.
After lunch on the Sunday the workshops took place. Brother Andres led a fascinating workshop on bhajans. He told us that the motor of bhajans is clapping, that we must all clap and loudly. Without this something vital is missing. The clapping is what keeps the airplane rising, flying and landing. Without it the singing is weakened. He also shared that when we sing bhajans with much energy, moisture forms on our bodies; this rises, becomes cloud, drops rain, moistens the earth, food grows, and earth's creatures are fed. A wonderful cycle, but a rarefied one because of the bhajan origin. He also pointed out that the Gayatri mantra should be correct. In the Beaverton center, apparently, we listen to the correct rendering on tape, of Swami chanting, before the start of the service, but then later we sing it ourselves differently. Andres said this should be addressed. All the centres, he said, should be singing the correct version. This is available on Radio Sai, through Youtube.
There was a Going Green workshop, in which we learnt that compost material should always be separated out of the trash. It also makes composting your garden much cheaper!
The Disaster Preparedness workshop was well-attended, and most people there seemed to have the basic idea of what to do in an emergency. In all cases, the first thing to do is to pray to Swami. In all cases we should know the location of our neighborhood emergency center. In many cases it is a school. In all cases we keep a full tank of gas in our cars. We keep a stash of cash in the house, because ATMs could well not be working. In the case of earthquake we should have laid in a store of food and water to last at least a week. Experts recommend 2/3 months. In the case of earthquakes, we are told to Drop, Cover and Hold. Take cover under something substantial like a solid table. We do not go outside if there are high buildings there; we do go outside if there are not. If you smell gas, turn it off at the mains. We should know where this is beforehand. Gas mains cannot be turned on again by us; a gas agent must be summoned. We cannot put out fires in our homes with a hose. When the water hits an electric socket we will be electrocuted. We must use an extinguisher, and we should know how to use this in advance. Someone suggested filling up the bathtub for drinking water, at the very start of an emergency. There is also a good supply of water in the water heater tank. Learn how to turn off the tap at the top to stop the tank water flowing back into the now-empty mains pipe. And learn beforehand how to open the tap for use at the bottom of the tank.
I heard the Sai Parenting workshop went very well. This work is important to Swami. And the other workshop was 'Lead with Love and Light'. How essential it is to know what correct leading is, and there are now so many opportunities in the Sai organization for this - all rotating, so that everyone who feels so called can surely have a turn. 'Lead kindly light!'
Brother Atlanta described a major service project he is involved in Washington state with the Yakima tribe of the First Nation states. Apparently this is going very well, and much needed funds are being generated for them to be able to afford necessities.
Brother Atlanta also gave us a brief report on how he and the children had fared all during the retreat. We only saw them at mealtimes, so they must have been kept very occupied! One of the things he had noticed was the children had formed bonds with each other, and made good new friendships. I think many of us adults could say the same thing about our community. There was such a feeling of goodwill, cooperation, and warmth amongst us all, that heartfelt feelings of friendship and bonding were very evident. I think we all saw firsthand the enormous value and reward of community, of doing things together. I think it brought us all to a higher level of warmth towards each other and gratitude. Deep gratitude to Swami, for bringing this all about on the earth, for if this is happening in our region, we can be sure it is happening in all Swami's regions all over the world. This is what will uplift the world. I remember reading in one of those early books, perhaps by Jack Hislop, that Michael Goldstein had gone to Swami, at the beginning of all this work, and told Swami that the centers were not working, that there was so much friction and argument that, despite the fact that he had tried very hard to make the centers work, the enterprise was a clear failure and should be abandoned. Swami was quite cross with Goldstein, and told him absolutely not; the centers could absolutely not be closed down, that they were to be His hands and feet, and that all His work depended on them. I am sure He must have then said some encouraging words to Goldstein, because Goldstein returned to the US, and made them work! And to what a high degree! They must now be all that Swami had hoped for! 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if the whole world felt towards each other as we feel towards each other here?' A sister remarked to me during our last (sandwich) lunch. Perhaps that day is not so far off! Perhaps it all is possible. Looked at a certain way, I think we can all see the groundwork for it!
Retreat summary report 2
With the rustic, natural backdrop of Cedar Ridge Retreat and Conference Center in Vernonia, OR, Sathya Sai Baba Centers and Devotional groups from Region 6 had their Annual Retreat during the Labor Day weekend, from Sep 2nd-4th. This was the first time that the Annual Retreat was being conducted at this particular location after having gathered previously at Silver Falls State Park for over more than a decade. Cedar Ridge Retreat and Conference Center was chosen after exhaustive searching for a suitable place. The area is beautiful, the buildings well-organized, the space well-suited to our needs, and the accommodation (ladies and gents in separate facilities) very comfortable. Arrangements were made to allow devotees to prepare food for the three days of the Retreat. All the conference rooms, dining hall and cabins had beautiful banners naming them Bliss, Harmony, Shivam, Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema etc.
Setup for this auspicious event started a day prior, on Friday, with an invocation prayer to Lord Sai, praying for his guidance and blessings. Equipment for Altar was well planned, organized and transported to the venue by the Altar Setup team. With a deep purple background, and golden drapes hanging elegantly, it formed a perfect backdrop for Swami’s beautiful altar. With beautiful picture of Swami smiling and blessing with both hands raised, the majestic chair for the Lord, and gorgeous flower arrangements, the Altar was complete.
The retreat officially started on Saturday at 9:30am with peaceful multi-faith prayers followed by melodious devotional singing. This was followed by a call to engage oneself in the activities by listening, contemplating and internalizing the message from the guest speakers in all earnestness.
Our Region was blessed by the presence of two of Swami’s very finest instruments, Bro. Ravi Mariwalla and Bro. Andres Zambrano who joined us as guest speakers. We were also fortunate to have Bro. Larry Steele, 1977 NBA Champion with Portland Trail Blazers attend the retreat. Following the devotional session, Bro. Ravi spoke the rest of the morning followed by Bro. Andres in the afternoon.
Speaker Session – Bro. Ravi Mariwalla
Bro. Ravi who had the great fortune of learning at the feet of the Lord for 23 years, beautifully and aptly said, “There is nothing extraordinary about me. The Power lies with the Alchemist. It is only due to my association with Swami that I am asked to be here. And the same reason that we are all here, seeking Sai love, that invisible vibration that enables us to revive, recollect and transform. The same reason that we go to Puttaparthi for.”.
Bro. Ravi asked the devotees to look and take in all aspects of Swami’s photographs that were being projected as part of his talk. He asked everyone to observe the aspects such as His hair, His eyes, His smile, His eyebrows, mole on His cheek, His robe etc. He later alluded to the fact that this observation done properly amounts to a form of meditation.
Bro. Ravi talked about how in spirituality we swing back and forth. How it is in our nature to doubt His divinity. Even after the Lord passes in all our tests, we still doubt. This is the nature of our minds. He called us to observe and recognize this mind, and dwell on the other entity, the Heart as we go through this retreat.
Swami has led an exemplary life, with selflessness, never caring about any achievements. In His final days, Swami in spite of being all powerful, was powerless. He showed that Love lives for others. Bro. Ravi asked us to thank Swami for bringing us to Him, for having allowed us to touch His robe, for having taught the tough spiritual concepts in easy ways. In spite of all the things happening in our lives, we have one Jewel in life, Swami, that ray of hope for all of us. Swami’s connections with each of us are one-on-one, heart-to-heart. Having witnessed that Love, it should enable us to emulate the same quality.
Control the senses to control the mind. Food and environment drives mind. Fill the mind with Sai, this will help the mind forget the world. These are the activities that help with cleansing heart. We should be worried about the damage happening to our minds similar to how we are worried about an injury on the body.
Once Swami said that the reason our minds are focused on Him when we are in Prasanthi is that He grabs all our vasanas (tendencies) and holds them under His feet during the darshan time.
Bro. Ravi talked about the analogy of Cow and Calves as to how Sai is our dear mother, ready to give us Love when we are in dire need. All we need to do is ask, ask with intensity.
Speaker Session – Bro. Andres Zambrano
The Afternoon session started with great energetic devotional singing by Bro. Andres to get rid of any post-lunch lassitude. Bro. Andres introduced something that he had heard about - four great fortunes. The fortunes of God having walked on earth, to be alive when God was here, to have known Him during this time, to have seen and interacted with Him. The greatest of all the fortunes is the opportunity to practice the message shared by the Lord.
Bro. Andres, born in Venezuela, talked about how in 1977/78, the documentary the lost years of Jesus was aired on TV which brought his family to Sai Baba. He talked about how Swami made him and his family feel comfortable and at home when they visited Parthi, and Swami called them for interview. He narrated this beautiful incident where they wanted to have a picture of Swami all by Himself, and the picture that they never took appeared, of Swami, in the roll of pictures.
Bro. Andres narrated a few more leelas of Swami that he was fortunate to have experienced over years. He talked about the school in Venezuela and all the wonderful activities that are part of the school there.
He asked us to delve into our role in the Golden age that Swami has said is arriving. A project that he shared that was interesting was the collaborative singing sessions with Iraq/Syrian refugee community.
The evening ended with devotional singing by the campfire, with all devotees new to Region 6 retreats introducing themselves and their connection with Swami.
SSE children had parallel retreat with wonderful fun and educational activities. Over 40 children have participated in this retreat.
Speaker Session – Bro. Ravi Mariwalla
Bro. Ravi continued his talk about mind and heart, and the framework for replacing mind with heart. How can we allow SAI to model our life? Sai Center is our Prasanthi Nilayam. Welcome everyone at the center. Bring consciousness, inspiration at your centers. Remember Sai is the center, and he is there during all center meetings.
Bro. Ravi talked about how once reading news articles has brought his energy levels down. Only after resorting to fill his mind with Sai literature, was he able to regain his composure. Mind is like a lake, ripples are like the environment, dirt at the bottom are like past karmas.
Once Swami asked Bro. Ravi, ‘What do you want’? Bro. Ravi due to the lessons learnt at His feet, was able to reply, ‘Swami! Please tell me what I want’. Swami lovingly said ‘Pray for expansion of your heart. That way you can receive all the grace’.
Pray for selfless Love, He will give it to you. Bro. Ravi narrated an incident where after trying and giving up on a patient who was not responding after heart surgery, on praying to the Lord, the patient survived miraculously.
Following Bro. Ravi’s talk, a very insightful panel discussion was held on the topic of “How can we become a Divine Instrument in God’s hands”. Questions related to faith and surrender were presented to our panelists – Bro. Anur Ashok Kumar, Bro. Unnikrishnan Varier, Bro. Padmanand Warrier, Bro. Ram Pochincherla, Sis. Rosi Goldsmith and Sis. Morelle Forster.
Post lunch, there were wonderful workshops on Sai Parenting led by Sis. Madhavi Maguluri, Going Green led by Sis. Krishnaveni Aunty, Devotional Singing by Bro. Andres, Emergency preparedness by Bro. Baskar Kesavulu, and a workshop on Leading with Love and Light by Bro. Padmanand Warrier. The workshop sessions were conducted on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, allowing members to participate in multiple workshops.
SSE & YA Program
The evening started with a recap of the SSE activities for the two days presented by Bro. Ananta, followed by a wonderful YA puppet show highlighting how working as a team helps us build better things.
Day 3 of the retreat started with Nagar Sankeertan followed by Breakfast, devotional singing, and an update on Yakima county project, and retreat reflections.