I was at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico over the summer of 2018 for a seminar on spiritual practices, mindfulness, and wellness. The resonance of what I was encouraged to explore still informs my daily interactions.
The spacious, airy room was inviting; the colorful wall hangings and yoga mats complemented the soft, neutral colors of the wall. Sarah Bunting, the Student Services Coordinator, sat in circle with us, greeting our seminar group of approximately 50 people. Her job was to make sure that we were all well situated for the week ahead. As she spoke, explained the Institute’s principle and guidelines, she placed her hand over her heart, looked at each one of us. She conveyed her gratitude to all of us for being there, her joy at being able to share the kinship and respect for Dr. Lad and his work. At the end, she offered us an idea to sit with throughout the week: we were there to make culture together.
That statement really caught my attention because it’s not one that is used every day. At first glance, I observed that our natal cultures (of those attending the seminar) were varied, but what lay beneath that?
The Ayurvedic Institute was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 1980s by Dr. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic doctor from India; the Institute was meant to be a hub of practice around the teachings of Ayurveda, a body of knowledge that informs of principles for living in balance and harmony. Dr. Lad—his presence was warm, and his teachings were genuinely conveyed with love. The way he transmitted the principles of balance, imbalance, subtle energetic bodies and metaphysical concepts was accessible and immediately applicable. Every time that I looked around during a lecture, the room full of attendees appeared to be deep in communion with his words and presence.
Every day, at the start of lectures and at the end of them, we chanted a Sanskrit mantra that honored the beauty of the community and the teachings. We took 2-hour lunch breaks between sessions. We didn’t use cell phones in the buildings, and only took pictures of diagrams that Dr. Lad drew when he invited us to do so.
It was a curated way in which we interacted with each other.
The point was that if you didn’t go along with this, you could disturb the experience for others and you would be asked to leave. The container would be broken. The rules we were given weren’t meant to be fatalistic and rigid—I hope that I am conveying that duly here—but rather, these are all things we did to ensure we achieved the same collective end: a healing, whole experience. The culture we created during the week facilitated mindful and meaningful connection to each other while being in the presence of an incredible teacher. That was the point of the seminar.
I hear a lot about “co-creating” our experience in the transformative dance scene and self-growth communities that I am a part of. Somehow, when phrased like that, the ask seems transient. Like, once the event or experience is over, the next won’t necessarily require to co-create. The events must come with directions. Maybe that’s just part of the embedded, hardwired narrative I employ as an American—that I don’t usually co-create. But the idea is not different from “making culture”—it’s just that the intimate setting of 50 people from around the globe who converged at the Ayurvedic Instiute made the ask of co-creation seem less transient, more necessary, because that’s what Dr. Lad inspired. I’m finding that “my culture is to co-create”—even I don’t call it as such.
Essentially, this is what we do, even when it’s just between two people. The exchanges that we have on an individual level allow us to make culture every day. The mindfulness we bring to those exchanges reflect a culture that values the space-holding for another person.
And while culture connects you to an identity, the power in that identity lies in your ability to change it; to let it go; to reconstruct the identity in a manner that serves you, and with that your community. Making culture is mindfulness in action.
On the last day of the seminar, there was a joyous if not muted mood among the attendees. We knew we had spent a transformative week together, and I believe many of us were considering how to keep up the spirit of the Ayurvedic Institute—how to implement dietary, lifestyle, and other changes for optimal health and balance. How to incorporate breathing, yoga, and meditation as Ayurveda suggests for each individual. Most of all, how to keep up the mindfulness in our interaction with the external world, knowing the sense of community that can immediately be stoked when we agree to act toward a common experience.
As I was leaving, I ran into Sarah. I knew it would be one of the last transactions I had with her. I wanted to profess my gratitude for her support and guidance during the week. We locked eyes in a comfortable way. It was a feature of interacting with her that I came to expect. It felt good, too, in the manner of validation that I had her full presence.
She touched her heart after hearing my offering of gratitude.
I touched mine when she said, “Thank you.”
That has become second nature for me—that when I am connecting with someone deeply, or being given deep sharing—I touch my heart. It’s become part of my practice to honor others. It is my culture.