The Big Picture

1 03 2007

By Jill Ettinger

Yoga has had a profound impact on my life in many ways. In 2001 I spent a month living at an ashram in upstate New York to complete a teacher training certification program. Though I had a full time job in the natural foods industry, I felt the intensity of this program would have a myriad of benefits.

I’ve this pattern of throwing myself into the fire of passions and curiosities, with heart and intuition as my guides, always hoping that by the time my mind catches up it’s too late to talk myself out of anything. I think it’s worked in my favor, in most cases.  The unknown is often frightening, and outsmarting myself in the weeks prior to my inward journey saved me such questioning anticipation.

There is a saying in yoga that one doesn’t find yoga – yoga finds the student when they are ready. It’s one of those karmic paths that some of us are bound to, and others not at all. I don’t question much about my journey anymore, definitely not after the month of September 2001.

Right from the start I was blasted with the reassurance I needed about being there. Arriving the first night just as dinner was being served, a tall man dressed in white, with long dreadlocks and full beard, asked if he could sit next to me. He seemed familiar. During the drive up from Miami, I had stopped along the way visiting friends and family, slowly transitioning from the fast-paced environment of home, rather than a quick three hour flight which would have seemed just to short a preparatory period. One of the books I had been intensely reading was Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. The man sat down and introduced himself: “My name is Bhagavan Das.” He was, indeed, the same Bhagavan that had introduced Ram Dass to his teacher, causing him to eventually write the book I was reading. In the book, Bhagavan had stayed behind in India when Ram returned home. No trace of him known and there, he sat next to me, the book in my bag on the floor between us both. That was September 8th.

As the sixty students began morphing into a collective, getting to know each other and ourselves in new and profound ways, just 72 hours after settling into the ashram, news came of what had happened in Manhattan. Many students among us were from the city and had friends and family that worked in the towers. Our world was already in a surreal state, but this seemed unfathomable. Our hosts made the decision not to cancel the program or feed into the media frenzy that all of America was absorbed in. We meditated. We sat in the stillness of the horror doing our best to understand the bigger picture. Not just what this meant for America, for the victims of this cruel attack, but for each of us and why it was we had all come together to be here now.  To this day, I’ve only seen footage of the attacks twice, in the films Fahrenheit 911 and Loose Change. (The latter I highly recommend.)

In 1999, I started working with a natural products brokerage company called SGN (standing for the Sikh yogi, Siri Guru Nanak; but as my boss used to say, “Some Good News!”). We represented top brands, like Clif Bar, Organic Valley, Yogi Tea and Peace Cereal. The organization was actually a subsidiary of the same parent company as Yogi Tea and Peace Cereal that Yogi Bhajan founded, Golden Temple. I worked for hardcore Yogis. Their managerial and operational style is profoundly different than most any other job I’d ever worked. They brought something to the table often talked of, but rarely ever practiced: flexibility and honor.

In June of 2001, I made a trip out to Denver. My grandmother was in the hospital. Again. She had been battling several illnesses, but old age was her dominant enemy. A petite and delicate woman, she was a lover, not a fighter. The years had been good to her; she took age with grace and dignity. The thought of losing her true self to the “longevity” practices of modern medicine had no appeal, and when I saw her this trip, both of us knew it would be our last. We were extremely close, and not just grandmother/granddaughter closeness. We were genuine friends. After we said goodbye, something major shifted for me. Almost immediately I wrote to my employers asking them to grant me time off to pursue some answers I was hoping to find in an intense month of yoga. Taking that much time off is quite a task for most organizations to manage, but for the yogis, happy, healthy employees is far more valuable than ornery ones muddling through the day-to-day. (As it turned out, the weeks following my departure would be paralyzed by the tragic events of 9/11, as all business virtually halted.)

Seventeen days into the program, I was pulled out of our philosophy class and handed a note that read, “Call your father. It’s urgent.” I was on a flight the next day, on my way to Denver. The haze over NYC as we took off from Newark was an ominous outward reflection of everything going on inside of me. What in the world was happening? I lacked any shred of proof that it was coming, but I could only hold on for the light at the end of this dim tunnel. Two days later I was back at the ashram as it poured and poured, my tent completely flooded, and all I could do was nothing. I just sat there with it. I don’t even think I cried. One of the daily chants we practiced just kept repeating itself in my head, “ I am not this body, I am not this mind.” Objectivity is critical, not only in my personal life, but my professional one as well. That’s not to say that emotion and preference don’t influence, but in the face of intensity being able to respond with flexibility and honor are critical tools for navigating successfully.

It’s that mind-bending month I call on often to remind me of what really matters. Last night while speaking with a good friend in this industry, we were both in awe of the pettiness competition often breeds. Her company is so committed to the transition our planet is undergoing, as well as giving people and farmers the opportunity to make radical shifts. Sadly some organizations lack the patience or foresight. They get caught up in ego chest-pounding righteousness. Like this slightly annoying article in the New York Times that questions whether Whole Foods’ core mission is being lost in its rapid growth. Do they not realize that the organic food business represents less than 4% of total US food sales? That within the other 96% is a country mindlessly consuming without making any connection to what they are eating, or  what that means not only for their health but also for our fellow humans, animal friends and precious environment?

Of course Whole Foods and companies like them have to grow in order to be an entry point for the other 96%. It takes steps and stages. I came across strange news focusing on Al Gore’s electricity consumption implying he’s greedily gobbling up kilowatts just for the heck of it.  Calling him a hypocrite is like calling George Bush a pacifist.  But I receive this all with a slight grin as I’m reminded of my favorite Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.”  So that would make us, let’s see, yep, checkmate.

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