When I was in India in 1995, I spent time at a women’s ashram in Kolkata. The head nun there was round and lively. She had many administrative duties including acting as a liaison to the nearby men’s ashram and coordinating the community service projects. But she also took time to take care of the younger nuns. She regarded each of them as her direct responsibility â€“ as if they were her younger sisters. At night, the nuns would come to her room to rub her feet, cook for her and generally make a fuss over her just to be close to her. I never heard anyone say anything negative about her. What they would talk about was what special sweets they were going to buy for her or how they were going to wash her saris or clean her room.
It was a beautiful environment – not without its dramas of course, but still, a sweet family feeling was very palpable in the place. The younger nuns clearly devoted themselves to this woman. I was just a guest so I didn’t really have much interaction with her, but then one evening, a few days before I was going to leave, a young nun came and found me.
“Didi said you must come, you must come to her room for dinner tonight.” What an honor, I thought, to be invited to have dinner with this special woman. “What should I bring?” I asked. “Nothing, nothing,” she said closing her eyes and sweeping my question away with her hands, “You simply come.”
So that evening I did my meditation and then put on a sari and went to Didi’s room for our dinner together. When I got there, Didi was sitting on a low stool on the floor flipping chapattis in her hands and cooking them over a stove on the floor. “Come, come!” she motioned. She pulled up a chair and gave me a plate. “Here, you start with this.” She gave me some eggplant curry and a hot chapatti.
“But Didi,” I protested, “I can’t eat without you!” By Indian standards, with someone of Didi’s stature, the thought of eating by myself while she was cooking for me, was horrifyingly rude – and not at all what I was expecting.
What I assumed is that we would be having dinner together – possibly cooked by a younger nun – and we would discuss highly philosophical yogic subjects and share our common love for the grandeur of the practice, blah, blah, blah.
Nope, she was adamant. And I was put in the awkward position of being served by one of the most devoted and respected spiritual women I’ve ever encountered. I had to release all my preconceived notions and accept the situation. The food was delicious. I loosened up a little and, despite my embarrassment, managed to enjoy it. Didi continued to flip chapattis, stir vegetables and grind up spices while telling me magical stories about her guru, punctuated here and there with a hearty laugh or a few bars of kirtan.
It’s not uncommon in India to hold the belief that the food you eat is vibrated by the energy of the person who prepares it for you. Didi whipped up some okra and tomatoes and gave me another chapatti. Not only was the food delicious, it was drenched in the love of a remarkable person and by eating it, I was being offered a taste of how it feels to be able to love that much.
Didiâ€™s humility filled me with gratitude. Not so much because she was nice and she fed me some great food, but because she taught me a timeless lesson that day â€“ feed people often and with love. Food is the most basic way, but if not food, then tea, if not tea, then words. Acknowledging someone with an offering is a powerful, transformative practice.
Think about how you feel when you put your heart into making a meal for your child or spouse or parents or friends. Then think about how you feel when they say, “This is delicious! Thank you.” What if we treated everyone with that same reverent love?
Offering is a two way street and the gratitude that follows the offering is also a two way street. Through the offering a relationship deepens, through the gratitude the relationship flowers. Offering and gratitude move us, in a very practical way, towards oneness.