Forest Life

And so it was that I, completely unsure of what to expect, dropped my pack in the red earth outside of Sadhana Forest and walked into the main bamboo hut, curiously awaiting my new life in a sustainable community.

Aerial view of Sadhana c/o Rashi Kalra Lawani 
View of the pizza oven, dosa kitchen & washing area
Free hugs happen every day at Morning Circle

Sadhana Forest is an ecological project started by an Israeli family who moved to Tamil Nadu in 2003 with a vision to reforest the 70 acres of red, arid soil upon which once stood a great coastal forest. Now, despite having suffered damage from the recent cyclone, Sadhana is a 60-70 strong community situated on the outskirts of Auroville, made up of passing volunteers who sign up for a 4 week minimum stay and a handful of long term volunteers who live there for up to 3 years at a time. People live communally – cooking, cleaning, working, eating and sleeping together in bamboo huts around the ‘main hut’ and participating in events, ‘sharing circles’ and workshops in spare time. The day begins at 05.30 with a morning ‘wake up’ – instead of alarm clocks, a group of people wander between huts and sing songs to wake the others. This is followed by ‘morning circle’, where there is more singing, holding of hands and hugs. Then, work commences with first ‘seva’ (service) – workers are either sent to the forest to plant or allotted  a permanent morning task for 5 or 7 days. In addition to this volunteers are given 2-3 ‘community shifts’ per week doing jobs such as cooking meals or cleaning up.

Everything is recycled

Upon arrival we were given the list of ‘thank yous’ or commitments we would make: no smoking, alcohol, drugs (prescribed or otherwise), no toiletries, no processed foods, no non-vegan foods, no stimulants for  either in or outside for the duration of our stay. For those of you who know me well, appreciate that sticking to this list would be some mean feat! As a woman who usually showers minimum twice a day, luxuriates in toiletries and bathes myself in various products and perfumes for pleasure, I wondered how I would get along with one mini hotel sized bottle of organic shampoo and one handmade organic soap bar for an entire month. It transpired that in the whole time I was there I would only take 2 showers – lack of time, and the energy required to go and pump water from the bore hole, then carry a pail of water to the laundry usually countered any desire to rid myself of the perpetual musk coming from my armpits. The one time I did take a shower the flimsy bamboo screen kept blowing away, leaving me standing there, starkers, revealing myself to the entire community. So I ended up swimming in the mud pool and washing my hair with the mulch (which was surprisingly effective).

Meal time in the main hut

Sunday night ushered in my first ever ‘sharing circle’ where the community sits together in the main hut in a circle and shares their emotions and feelings of the previous week. I expressed that I was so excited to be there as living communally was something that I had wanted to do my whole life. And it was with typical vigor that I threw myself in – teaching yoga, giving reiki, holding my hand up and volunteering for extra work additional to my shifts (even shovelling shit from the toilets, especially cooking), attending workshops for new things that I wanted to try such as tantra yoga. I loved the fact that we all ate and slept together. I made many friends. At night I would peek out of the eaves of my bamboo hut and look at the moon and feel so connected to nature, to the universe and stars. I would often spend some time in the evening on the swing, gently rocking back and forth beneath the bright light of the waxing moon. I loved to wake up to music and beautiful singing. Indeed I sang my heart out at weekly ‘khirtan’ (a session of devotional singing). I was very appreciative of the fact that the people at Sadhana worked incredibly hard – not just to keep themselves but also to restore the environment and work together with local communities and children.

Supportive hugs

It struck me that me this simple way of living, in peace and harmony and openness with others, was infinitely preferable to the life I was living before – a selfish life – one in pursuit of cardinal pleasure. A nuclear life which was not shared, where I was not loved. In Sadhana I was never short of someone to talk to or to receive a cuddle from. In the beginning I became very close to a scientist from Ohio and we spent every evening together, listening to music, laughing, sharing life stories and intimate moments and passing the hours in our own little world. It was a beautiful and unexpected connection. I was wary of attachment but enjoying having a special little light with another, it was difficult not to.

Our luxurious toilets
This says it all, really

Yet with yin comes yang, with light, comes the dark. I would soon find that life in the forest during the onset of brutal Tamil summer (up to 34 degrees) was physically incredibly challenging.  After contracting a severe bladder infection on Day 2 and being constantly dehydrated, I soon tired of having to run to the toilet every 5 minutes and embraced the Sadhana maxim ‘pee by a tree’, squatting down wherever I was. Going for a poo, however, was a little more complex. Firstly, you had to open a metal drum and draw a jug of water, balance it on top of the drum. Then, open the ‘poo hole’, squat down over it and do your business. If you needed to both pee and poo, you had to simultaneously catch the urine in a shovel and then later pour that down the ‘pee hole’ (poo was dry composted whearas wee was harvested to put back into the soil). Once done, you had to take a cup full of sawdust, cover up your poo, replace the lid and then wash yourself, using your left hand and the jug of water, over the pee hole. The next part was to try and pull your pants back up with only your right hand, replace the water jug and drum lid, then open the door of the toilet cubicle (again with only right hand) then attempt to wash both hands thoroughly in one cup of water and natural soap, dispensed again with only the right, clean (ish) hand. This was a challenge at the best of times, never mind last thing at night, or morning, in the dark or having to add menstruation into the mix. In all my life, I have never felt that going to the toilet could be such hard work.

The ‘sink’ where we washed after pooing
My bedroom in Sadhana
The lovely Steph and our daily schedule

My beloved friend from Ohio left abruptly to continue his pursuits in the states and I was bereft. In addition (and after our secret outing together to Pondi in which we broke all the rules), I contracted severe dehydration and sunstroke and spent several days racked with shivers, pouring in sweat and in a feverish, hallucinatory state. I don’t know if it was the sickness, the cleansing that my body was undertaking from all the vegan food, the powerful energies that undoubtedly exist in Sadhana or the pressures of community life under the microscope but I began to experience a kind of mental crisis. Old wounds emerged, emotional scum started to rise to the surface and with it, self doubt, fear and paranoia. I couldn’t retain water so had to drink saline. I hadn’t washed in days and could only manage to climb down from my bamboo attic to squat down. I stank but couldn’t wash. My hair was awry. I felt like a madwoman. Although I was surrounded by people I felt constantly lonely. I wanted to escape. I felt that I didn’t even know myself any more. Drinking only salt water, I began to believe that I was going mad. I wrote home. A long and dramatic email that I think might have scared my closest friends. Thankfully their missives came flooding back – filled with love – a life line. I started to recover. 

Front view of the toilets (yes I’m obsessed!)

During my darkest hours in Sadhana I questioned the authenticity of the project and how truly ‘sustainable’ it was – (local Indian workers constructed the huts, food was not grown there but brought in by rickshaw). There is a lot of manual labour that seems unnecessary – I spent a week on my hands and knees cutting grass in the scorching heat with only a blunt scythe for the job where a couple of goats could have happily fulfilled the task. Much watering of the many trees that have been planted over the years is done by hand. With this in mind, I don’t feel that the economies of scale are there for true growth and sustainability.

Having fun with Sholev

There are families at Sadhana whose children are being purposefully ‘uneducated’ – which was never explained to me but as far as I can see involves always allowing a child to do exactly what it is that he or she wants to do. In theory, I like the idea of natural, beautiful children running around naked in the forest with no cares or worries. In reality, a child who articulates herself in many language but cannot tell time or read and write does not seem to me to be fulfilling her creative potential. I couldn’t help but feel that the children were being equipped for one sort of life only, and not being given the tools to be able to live a fulfilling life in the outside ‘real’ world. That said, the children were beautiful and I took great pleasure in enjoying their company and playing with them.

The cooking shift in progress

And of course, as with all of these things a hierarchy exists – and why shouldn’t it – this is Yorit and Aviram’s home after all – but I couldn’t help but feeling on occasion that local Indians were more employees than participants. The nature of the turnover of many short term volunteers and the sheer size of Sadhana means that it sometimes functions in more of a military fashion – with volunteers simply keeping the engines turning and to make a real difference people have to stay there for 3 years or more which is a shame as many of those people who have the talent or ideas to instigate real change are often unable to make this committment. That said, I do believe that what Yorit and Aviram have achieved in the circumstances is a triumph and having watched Aviram in action and consulted him personally on a project post-Sadhana, I admire his intellect, his ideals and his lifetime dedication to a goal, which is more than those who pass remarks on Sadhana in a negative light can claim to have.

NVC smiles with Jason and Arbele

It was around the time of my illnesss  that I began a course in NVC or ‘Non Violent Communication’. This was a course that was offered for free in Sadhana Forest and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have participated. The premise of NVC is that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies are learnt behaviors taught by the prevailing culture. NVC helps people to be able to communicate with one another in a compassionate, non violent way and thus creates deeper understanding, connections and enables conflict resolution (http://www.cnvc.org). NVC at Sadhana involved a small group spending many of our waking hours together in sharing circles.  I will not attempt to paraphrase here what NVC entailed, but I would like to say that it was a life-changing experience full of significant realisations about myself and the wounds that I have to heal, about how strong beliefs that I had previously held had shaped me and why they came about. It also gave me the greatest gift of all – that of hope. This was all down to the careful curation of our week long NVC course by Jason Stewart, a long term volunteer and ‘NVC expert’, who I have to thank for so much, not least the personal help he gave me at the height of my crisis (as well as the lovely Steph who healed me with both homeopathy and love). NVC gave me connections again to the community around me from whom I had began to withdraw after the departure of my friend. I experienced so much love for those people who had hitherto been strangers and it was wonderful to get closer to them on this deeper level.

Solar panels at Sadhana Forest

One of the greatest things that NVC helped me to understand was that I alone have the ability to empower myself to make me happy. Although Sadhana had been good for me, I had many realisations: I was not a vegan. I never could be. Ellen DeGeneres I am not. Nigella Lawson on the other hand… The food there was not making me feel healthy. I was permanently dehydrated and couldn’t retain any water, not even the salt stuff by the end. There was no escape from the brutal heat. Although I was interested in permaculture, I am not a farmer and nor do I have the physical consitution to undertake manual labour in the heat of South Indian summer. I felt the project was good but I couldn’t buy into it entirely. I had learnt many lessons  but it was time to move on.

Saying goodbye….

And so, at breakfast on Monday morning I made the announcement: “today is Monday, which is Shiva’s day and Shiva is telling me to move on.” I had met another Shiva devotee in the forest who had told me about Thiruvannamalai, the mountain town in which the God was said to have appeared as a column of fire and his spirit is embodied by the living Mountain, Arunachala. I had not managed to complete the four week minimum stay, but I felt called elsewhere. The definition of ‘sadhana’ – is ‘a spiritual journey in pursuit of a goal’. Despite my premature departure, I certainly felt that I’d completed my own sadhana.

Flushed and joyous after the Shiva temple

Following my call, I based myself in Auroville and the next weekend I visited Thiruvannamalai. Taking darshan in the temple, suddenly I was overcome – sick, flushed, sweating, ecstatic – full of the divine.  I felt Shiva enter my entire body. As was observed by Ananda, a Shiva devotee who runs a small scale community in the shadow of the Mount Arunachala – something had changed in me. The next day I climbed the living embodiment of Shiva, barefoot, in pilgrimage to him. I was one with the mountain. I was free.

Climbing Mount Arunachala
Meditation on top of the mountain, the living ‘Shiva’

PS Thanks to Sadhana Forest for the opportunity to participate and all of the gorgeous people I met there who changed my life…

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One thought on “Forest Life

  1. I plan on visiting Sadhana Forest in a month and a half to volunteer. I was wondering if I could get your advice of what I should definitely pack or not pack based on your experience. Types of clothing and shoes would be specifically helpful. Thanks!

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