This is a story about a spontaneous forgiveness ritual that I undertook during a journey in Northern India. At a time when I least expected it, Spirit gave me a practical tool to let go of three big G’s: gripes, grudges and guilt. Nothing airy fairy about that tool, though, it was damned hard work…
Gabrielle was in India. She was now staying for a few days in an ashram situated high up in the Himalayas, close to the Tibetan border – a magnificent part of the world. The month was October and she had just spent two weeks celebrating Navaratri, a spiritual Hindu festival, in unexpected ways. Much to her delight, her travel schedule had turned out to be far more exciting than the she thought she’d booked for at the time of paying for her trip.
She strongly suspected that, once more, Spirit had plans for her that she still was to discover…
Three months earlier, she had booked to go to India as part of a group. Due to political unrest and a serious health scare, the group never materialised. Only Gabrielle and another Australian woman called Jenna ended up going. Once there, they met with an Indian guide who became their friend and minder for the whole month. He decided to take them to more remote, safer places than what the Australian tour organisers had planned because of the unstable political situation.
From their first meeting at Delhi Airport, Gabrielle knew she was in good company. She felt straight away a sense of trust and friendship, as if the three of them had known each other all their life. “We must have been soul mates for eons”, Jenna said to her after a few days.
And now, after a slow overnight train journey, followed by a hair-raising drive up the mountains, they had finally arrived at the ashram.
It was just beautiful. The view over the Himalayas was spectacular, the autumn weather glorious and Gabrielle and Jenna settled in very easily. They had time to themselves, as their guide went to stay with one of his cousins in another village. This week at the ashram was meant to be a quiet time of rest and contemplation for them.
Spirit decided otherwise.
On the day they arrived, Gabrielle felt a need for time alone, and took a long walk, away from the busy ashram. She arrived at an area that had obviously been cultivated during a previous growing season. Flat earth terraces followed each other from the top of the hill where she was standing, all the way down to a narrow valley. If it weren’t for the terraces carefully levelled over stone walls, it would have been a very steep hill. At that time of the year, the ground was now left to regenerate, with no sign of farming or human presence.
In the distance, on the other side of the valley, she could see a village bursting with life. Children were playing in the streets, animals roamed around, scrounging for food, and farmers came and went, busy with their everyday life.
Gabrielle settled herself under a tree on one of the small terraces. What had attracted her there was a tall red flower standing alone in the middle of the flat space. It was about a metre high, and looked like a lone flame amongst the yellow chaff left lying around.
Suddenly she had a strong impulse. She knew she was to complete a healing ritual at that spot. She didn’t need to work it out, or plan it in any way – it just came to her in an instant. She knew exactly what she was meant to do. She was to create a medicine wheel around the lone flower, and clear it of stones. It sounded crazy.
“Gabrielle, you are going to pick up exactly one thousand stones out of this circle” the inner voice said. “Count them. Each one of them represents a grudge you’re holding. And you’re going to throw them out of the circle, one by one. You have five days. Get started now…”
She moaned for a while, tempted to ignore the command. “Remember” she argued with Spirit, “I’m here on a holiday…”
“No” came the laconic answer “You are here to take the next step.” She instantly recalled a recent dream in which she was climbing a never-ending flight of stairs. Begrudgingly she stood up.
“OK, you win” she said. Obviously it was her ego speaking earlier. “But you know,” ego went on, “I have already done a lot of work on myself, I’m sure I’m not holding a thousand grudges.” “We’ll see…” Spirit said.
She found a short hard stick and drew a large circle, about a metre radius from the beautiful red flower in the middle. The ground was dry and hard, and she had to use much strength to delineate her medicine wheel. She soon realised it was going to be hard work.
She divided the space in five roughly equal segments, like giant cake slices, and prayed that she would easily find two hundred stones in each one of them. She decided to follow orders and take five days to complete her task, one segment a day, starting straight away.
By now she had learnt the hard way that when Spirit said “jump!” Her best option was to surrender her will and do it. Resistance only brought pain and physical illness.
There was no one around, although she was aware that the villagers on the other side of the valley could see her just as she could see them. She decided to ignore them and hoped they would do the same.
She got started. It wasn’t easy. She picked up the biggest stone on her chosen segment. It was about the size of a small egg. Instantly she remembered a phone conversation she had had a couple of years earlier with her parents. It had been hurtful and unpleasant. Anger rose in her. With all her strength, she threw the stone. It landed with a bang on the retaining wall three terraces lower.
“Cop that” she said out loud as tears came into her eyes. She instantly felt lighter, although shocked at her violent outburst. She bent down and picked up another stone…and another one…and another one… Slowly, one stone at a time, she entered a trance-like state. Now fully in the present moment, she kept digging. Sometimes she used her fingers, sometimes the stick. Her fingertips were very sore now.
The task became harder and harder, as most of the stones were deeply embedded in the hard and dry ground. Sometimes when she picked a stone and held it in her hand, she had a clear recollection of an unpleasant event from her past. Images flashed in front of her mind’s eye. Or sounds. Angry voices going back a very long time.
A baby crying – a distressed baby who was left to cry in her cot. She instinctively knew she had been that baby, she had also been that baby’s mother.
Sometimes she was just aware of a fleeting emotion.
She wasn’t trying to understand or analyse anything. She was just the observer and her hands kept digging. As each stone was slowly dislodged, one by one, she realised that images, sounds and feelings vanished as soon as she put it down on the outside of the circle.
She had stopped throwing them after a while, as it only made her work harder. And this way, she didn’t need to check if anyone was around either.
An hour passed. She kept digging. One hundred and nine…one hundred and ten…one hundred and eleven…
She was now crying with pain. She had cleared the top ten centimetres of ground, in her slice, and the digging was getting harder and harder. And yes, there were plenty of stones left. They weren’t hard to find but they were hard to remove. Just like the grudges that were still there, deeply imbedded in her psyche. Another hour passed. One hundred and eighty-six…one hundred and eighty-seven… one hundred and eighty-eight…Her knees and back hurt, sweat poured down her face, dripping on the ground in front of her. She kept wiping her face with her sleeve, and her sleeve was now brown with sweat, dirt and tears mixed together. One hundred and ninety-nine…two hundred…
Gabrielle slowly stood up. Her neck and shoulders were so sore she could hardly move her head. She was also very thirsty, as her bottle of water had been empty for a while.
She lay down on the hard ground, allowing her body to stretch and relax. She hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon, which she was grateful for. And then she slowly walked back to the ashram, just in time for evening Darshan.
The next day her body was so stiff she could hardly get up when the alarm rang at 3:15am. With a few others, including Jenna, she had volunteered to make fresh flower garlands each morning. They were adorning various pictures of Babaji, as well as all the images and sculptures of the many Hindu deities adorning the temple.
It was the karma yoga she had elected to do, because she strongly disliked being deprived of sleep or getting up early. Admittedly when she had put her hand up for the job, she hadn’t realised she was committing to doing it every morning, she mistakenly thought it was just for the next day!
And on that morning, the third day there, sitting under the stars on the ashram’s roof, freezing in the dry cold of the high altitude, Gabrielle found it even harder than ever before. Her shoulders were stiff and her fingertips still numb from scratching the hard ground.
“Ashram life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”, she thought to herself. “Definitely not a holiday.” She didn’t say that to anyone though, apart from Jenna. She had been told that devotees are meant to welcome pain and challenges. “Obviously” she added to herself, “I’m not a devotee, I’m just a bloody tourist who would like to sleep in!”
That afternoon, she walked back to the earth terrace and painfully dug out another two hundred stones from the next segment of her medicine wheel. A couple of long hours later, walking back to the ashram, she somehow felt lighter. Even though her body was still stiff and sore, her heart was starting to sing.
The next day, as she was digging, she encountered a stone about the size of a large melon. To start with, she ignored it and went for the smaller ones around it. It kept staring her in the face, as if saying “So, when are you going to dig me out? Gabrielle, you can see me…come on, be brave, deal with me…”
Eventually she did handle it. First physically, which took her a very long time. And then emotionally which, to her surprise, was the easy part. As soon as the stone came out of the ground, she knew what it represented. It was guilt, a solid mass of it. Like an agglomeration of events she regretted – hurtful words she had said, lies she had told, her shortcomings as a wife and mother, withholding of love…
She stood up, held the big stone for a while and experienced how heavy it was. And then she dropped it outside the circle. And literally felt a big weight leaving her.
“Forgiveness”, she realised, “this is what forgiveness is. Just dropping the bundle. Letting it go…”
“Thanks guys, got it!” she added loud, facing the high mountains in the distance. And she went back to work. Another fifty-three to go till check out time!
Two days later, Gabrielle completed her task.
… Nine hundred and ninety-eight…nine hundred and ninety-nine…one thousand…
She slowly stood up and stretched, as if trying to reach the sky with her arms. She felt great. She looked at her surroundings, and it was as if everything were brighter. The view of snow-covered Himalayan summits at sunset was stunningly beautiful. She breathed deeply and felt very happy.
She then sat down a few metres away, leaning against the tree where it had all started five days earlier. She surveyed her work. The lone red flame flower stood as straight as ever in the middle of the dugout circle. Her medicine wheel was now clearly delineated by the hundreds of stones strewn all around.
“One thousand grudges out of my mind…” she said to herself. “Not bad…”
At that instant, a little boy appeared. She wondered for how long he had been there. Maybe all the time, she thought, although he was the first person she had seen since she had started on her task. He was about five or six years of age, a very beautiful child with a healthy body, clean clothes, big black eyes and a smiling, open face.
He just stood there, a few metres away, alternatively looking at her and looking at the circle with a puzzled look on his face. She smiled at him and handed him her bottle of water. He had a drink and then silently sat next to her. She didn’t move and they just sat together in silence, looking at the circle and the red flame flower.
After a little while, he moved closer and snuggled up to her. Gabrielle silently put her arms around him.
He now had his head in her lap, and she felt an immense joy. She had missed the physical closeness she used to enjoy with her children when they were little. And now it was given back to her through this beautiful, quiet little Indian boy. She felt forgiven for all past mistakes.
A magical moment made even more special when a white butterfly joined them. It just landed on her hand and stayed there. The little boy laughed. And then he jumped up and started talking to her. He pointed to the village across the valley. They conversed for a while, her in English, him in Hindi. And even though they didn’t speak the same language, at another level they did. Somehow they understood each other, transcending all barriers.
She photographed him and he posed for her, looking strong and serious.
Hand in hand they walked back towards the ashram. Just before they arrived in view of the group of buildings, he gave her hand a little squeeze, then gently moved sideways, waved to her and ran towards the village without looking back.
She never saw him again. The next day, Jenna, Gabrielle and their guide left the ashram to continue their journey.
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