Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Circumambient World

As I near the end of my current India adventure, I have come full circle – back to where I first believed that someday I would be a Fulbrighter.

I recently returned from Sri Lanka. The US-India Education Foundation has a special travel grant available to Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholars in India to present guest lectures or workshops in adjacent countries. I was awarded this grant in order to guest lecture at the International Water Management Institute ( in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I also did a retreat at the Nilambe Meditation Centre ( where, 20 years ago, I met a Fulbright Fellow who inspired me to venture on this journey.

Water of Life
I learned a lot more from the folks at IWMI than they did from me. I have been interested in conflict resolution around water issues for a long time, but have only recently been intensely involved in research on the topic. My time at IWMI was an amazing opportunity to learn more from some of the top water experts in the world.

I spent a week living at their Guest House and hanging out at Head Quarters of IWMI learning about water issues, with a particular focus on water conflicts, from the researchers there. About one-third of the researchers are natural scientists, about one-third engineers, and about one-third social scientists, mostly economists. The focus of IWMI has traditionally been on irrigation for agricultural, although this obviously touches on many other related issues. They have four research themes: (1) Water Availability and Access; (2) Productive Water Use; (3) Water Quality, Health and Environment; and (4) Water and Society.

My main host was Mark Giordano, the Theme Leader for Water and Society. Mark is from Walla Walla, Washington, which is near Pilot Rock, Oregon, where my mother spent her early years on my great grandfather’s ranch. He went to Whitman College, the excellent small liberal arts college in Walla Walla. He and his wife Meredith, who also works at IWMI heading a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded project, both have PhDs in geography from Oregon State University where they studied with Aaron Wolf, a globally renowned expert on water conflicts.

While at IWMI, much of my time was spent in dialogues with Mark. He graciously answered my questions and pointed me towards resources he thought would be of interest. I made a point to spend time with all the theme leaders who were in the IWMI offices, plus the Director General, Deputy Director and top researchers on various issues. The opportunity to informally interact with these brilliant scientists – asking them my sometimes basic but often challenging questions – was wonderful!

At the end of my week there, I presented my guest lecture in the Friday Seminar Series. It was titled, “Water Conflicts: A Framework for Analysis, A Case Study and Suggestions for Resolution.” In my presentation, I told the story of the water conflict I had just researched in Gujarat. Using the analytical tool of “nested conflict,” I included many different escalating factors beyond just water. 

We had a rich discussion afterwards. Some of the hard-core natural scientists challenged me on my mostly qualitative methodology, and some of the social scientists were particularly intrigued by the relational, cultural and legal issues that I discussed. My suggestions for resolution were generally well received. I proposed that instead of the western model of “outsider neutrals” as mediators to resolve local water conflicts, it might be more successful to use “insider partials who are known and trusted and understand the local culture, language, relationships, history, etc. In the case study I presented my example was a well-known guru in the area named Morari Bapu who tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to act as a mediator. During my interview with him he swung in a lounge chair the whole time. Below he is about to present me with a special blessing and this shawl.  

My time at IWMI was far beyond what I had imagined it could be. And it inspired me to do more work in the increasingly important area of water conflicts. While the popular rhetoric of imminent “water wars” may be a bit alarmist, I do think that as the global population grows and as we see more competition for water uses, being able to play a positive role in peaceful resolution of water conflicts will be incredibly important. I thank Mark and the many wonderful people who I met at IWMI for a challenging and stimulating week.

Circle of Life
Twenty years ago, I took off and traveled around the world. I had worked on Wall Street for three years and saved my money for this big trip, my first venture outside of the USA. Turned out that I literally circled the globe, visiting 26 different countries, and traveling as long as my savings lasted, which was a year and a half. About a year was spent in India and Southeast Asia, including six weeks in Sri Lanka.

On my last visit to Sri Lanka, I did volunteer work with the Batticaloa Peace Committee which was tracking “disappeared” Tamils who had been detained by Sri Lankan police and army then never seen again. That long civil war between separatist Tamils, led by the rebel group called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the Sinhalese majority is over. Although there was a brutal end to the conflict, about which some in the international community are calling for investigations, most everyone I spoke to in Sri Lanka was glad it is over and their lives are back to normal without fear of terrorist attacks by the LTTE or others.

Last trip, I also went to a lay meditation center where I studied with one of the truly enlightened beings I have encountered, the late-great meditation teacher Godwin. I also met a man who had a Fulbright Fellowship to study meditation techniques in Asia. This planted a seed. I said to myself, “Someday, I am going to do a Fulbright.” Finally, after 20 years, here I am doing a Fulbright… and feeling like my life has come full circle.

Last week, I made a pilgrimage back to this place. After a short overnight stay in Kandy, where I visited the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Lanka’s most sacred site which houses in the inner sanctum a tooth relic of the Buddha), I returned to Nilambe Meditation Centre. Nilambe is nestled in a beautiful tea plantation high above Kandy, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills.

This majestic setting was the perfect place for me to do a 48-hour silent retreat. For some of my friends and family, it may be hard to imagine Patrick not saying a word for two days straight. But let me tell you, it was a liberating experience to be totally silent for that period. Quieting my mind was a challenge, but sitting in stillness with God was a wonderful blessing and I cherish the opportunity to practice meditation in this way.

I am trying to carry this mindfulness practice back into daily life, but it is difficult to “come down from the mountain,” which is, of course, the case in every re-entry situation from a life-changing experience. There is a Christian method of mediation, called Centering Prayer, which I have been practicing both on my own with encouragement from my spiritual director and with a group at my church.

Part of the challenge of regular meditation, especially for those of us in the “householder” stage of life (that is with children, working, caring for a home, etc.), is that we can’t fit it into our routine. Nilambe helps by providing the space and structure for practicing mindfulness. Plus, everyone there has made a special effort to be at Nilambe to meditate. Here is the daily schedule:

Wake-up Gong
Group Meditation
Tea with the Sunrise
Mindfulness In Motion (yoga/walking)
Working Meditation
Group Meditation
Individual Outdoor Meditation
Rest/Reading (Library open)
Walking Meditation (indoor/outdoor)
Group Meditation
Tea Break (only during this half-hour, those who choose to – which I did not – can practice “Right Speech” which is useful, gentle, timely and truthful, the rest of the day we all practice Noble Silence)
Mindfulness In Motion
Meditation with Nature
Soya Coffee with the Sunset
Chanting and Group Meditation
Dhamma Lecture or Meditation
Preparation for Sleep
Sleeping Time

Light of Life
Now is the holiday of Diwali in India. It is the Festival of Lights. Delhi looks like Christmas in America with strings of lights and flowers adorning many buildings and gifts being exchanged by family, friends and colleagues. I am joining the extended family of my landlady and landlord for a special Diwali dinner.

My prayer is that all in India (and everyone everywhere) will let our inner lights shine and dispel all the darkness in the world! 

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