Column:

Desi Roots, Global Wings – A column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

I am about to start on a “Sacred Journey.” That is the name of a program offered by Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in Burlingame. I decided to enroll in this program because it seemed to respond to my yearning for Spirituality and Community. 

What I mean by Spirituality is turning away from materialism, busyness, and attachment and choosing patience, humility, wonder, and reflection. As for Community, it is being with individuals who are ready to share of themselves and engage in a gentle, open-minded, and curious way.

Over the years I have come to realize that Spirituality without Community does not work for me. Lack of community is like being on a silent retreat or in a monastery, where I am stuck with my own thoughts and ideas. It is like being alone on a train without windows, that is, not having any experiences or encounters that have the possibility of offering exposure to new experiences or a new insight. Community without Spirituality feels like being on a cruise. Sure, everyone is guaranteed fun, but it does not offer depth of connection. 

Before moving to California two years ago, I was part of a group of about eight people that met for two hours once a month. We were together for about three years and discussed a wide variety of topics such as seeking and offering forgiveness, finding purpose and meaning, practicing generosity and giving, and serendipity. Due to the range and depth of the sharing, all the group members developed bonds of mutual caring. 

 This type of gathering is a spiritual practice. It creates a sacred space where we can tell the stories of our lives, feel heard, and listen deeply to the stories of our companions. This type of deep sharing works because it fills a human need that is as old as time. It also helps that there are certain mutually agreed upon rules and expectations that have been fine-tuned by experts. These can be summarized as: no judgment, confidentiality and privacy, and equal time to speak and be heard.

One component of the Sacred Journey program in which I have enrolled is a “sacred circle” consisting of about six participants who will meet once a month. The topic of discussion will be related to the book that we will be reading that month as part of the program. Meeting the same people each month and conversing with them in a setting that encourages thoughtful reflection will support the formation of deep bonds of friendship and trust. The coordinator mentioned that some previous groups continued to meet even after the program ended. 

Another component of the program are books that participants will read and discuss each month. We will also be required to write a short reflection about what the book meant to us. The first book is “Breath Prayer: An Ancient Practice of the Everyday Sacred” by Christine Valters Paintner. It suggests short prayers to match the rhythm of breathing and the activity that one might be engaged in. An example is a simple refrain which offers a way to be still and infused with positivity. It is akin to the chanting that is part of various faith traditions. 

I breathe in peace

I breathe out love

Being a task-oriented person, I tend to focus on rational, reasoned, and empirical ideas. Even though I have always been drawn to books like “Breath Prayer,” I was previously not able to engage with them. This time it is different because I know I will have a guide and fellow participants with whom to reflect on the teachings.

In his book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy argues that loneliness has been associated with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety. A study has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It is important to note that loneliness is not the same as being alone. Antidotes to loneliness are a community of shared values, serving others, and being engaged in a creative pursuit.

My Sacred Journey is founded in the Christian tradition. The organizers assured me that my not being a Christian will not be a hindrance and that in the past they have had participants from other non-Christian faith traditions. I am confident that I will find what I seek on this journey just as I have in other forays off the beaten track. 

As I write this, it has been announced that masks will no longer be required in airports and on flights. It feels like a new beginning, as if spring has sprung (it has!), or that we are returning home after an ordeal. My creative side wants to start something new — a different kind of sacred circle – with fellow Indians. After all, I share with them (you) a place of origin, experience of uprooting and re-rooting, and a distinct life journey. It is exciting to think of all that we might share, learn, and build together. It could be like becoming visible to ourselves in a new way. If you are interested in joining me on a different kind of Sacred Journey, drop me a note: nandini.writer@gmail.com.


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.

Photo by Kylie Lugo on Unsplash