S.M.I.L.E.

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.

Mother Teresa

“I like the idea that once we’ve looked beyond our ‘false ego’, then our essence, our true self, is amazing…” says Angie Elmore of Northamptonshire, one of some 60 participants at a recent ‘wellbeing’ day-retreat held in deepest Hertfordshire (on a grey and rainy Saturday) to raise much-needed funds for cancer patients. The ‘true ego’ (as opposed to that irritatingly false one) is one of many enlightening concepts we will explore as a day of fun, reflection, introspection and interaction, (and maybe the odd bit of casual soul-searching!) unfolds at Bhaktivedanta Manor estate (ISKCON UK HQ).

Today’s workshops kick off with an ice-breaking exercise designed not only to carefully prise us off our seats, but to gently nudge us out of our collective comfort zone. Our facilitator, Corporate Psychologist Dev Modi, invites us to move away from any trusted friends we might still be (un)intentionally clinging to, encouraging us to instead pair up with a random stranger of choice and (cutting out small-talk) to mull over the not entirely insignificant question “Who Am I?” And, just so we don’t get too comfortable with our new-found stranger, Dev quickly instructs us to move on and continue a similar conversation with another unfamiliar person (but using completely different words!). A truly collaborative tone is set for the day, as we discover – in the safe environment of the estate’s magnificent brand-new two-storey community building, (Sri Krishna Haveli) – how refreshingly easy it is to bare our souls to someone completely new upon very first encounter.

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Building up Community – Sri Krishna Haveli under Construction

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Our retreat-hosting cancer charity, Smiling Soul, recently evolved  from an initiative originally set up by Janakinath dasa (JD), a resident monk for over a decade at Bhaktivedanta Manor. JD cannot, unfortunately be with us today. The man affectionately known as ‘The Smiling Monk’ was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer early in 2017.

Since then, JD has, remarkably, described cancer as ‘a gift’ which has not only served to deepen his appreciation of living, but also enabled him to gain a broader perspective on life, stating “I became more compassionate, more empathetic, and even more determined to reach all of my goals”.

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JD – King of Hearts

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It’s still not (quite) lunchtime, and we’ve already learned, (to our surprise), that it can sometimes be more straightforward to ‘tell it like it is’ to a total stranger than to broach deep and personal issues with someone we’ve known for quite some time. With this in mind, we select and engage with yet another fellow human being who has no preconceived notions (whatsoever) about us, to mutually open up on fear, hope and gratitude aspects of our current life-situation. As we appear to be entering a different space mentally, it seems like a natural progression to do so physically. And so we gravitate very easily towards the haveli’s expansive central space to ease our limbs into sacred geometric shapes of yoga, rounding off our shift in both mental and physical centre of gravity with some (horizontal) meditation to soothingly played live background music. “In the final relaxation the beautiful slow key-changes of the harmonium and the peaceful ambience of the new haveli sent me to a dreamy place. It was like an altered state of consciousness” says Lou Hains of North London “I came back relaxed, refreshed, and reinvigorated.”

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Sri Krishna Haveli – Ready for some Yoga

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Of course, JD’s own recent life-journey has been far from plain sailing. “When this first happened, I did not see cancer as a gift” he says. JD readily acknowledges how he went through a roller-coaster of emotions, such as fear and negativity, stress, mood-swings and depression – who wouldn’t?

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When you lose your smile, you lose your way in the chaos of life.

 Roy T. Bennett (Author)

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So what exactly brought that much-loved smile back to JD’s face?

Well, he felt (amazingly) happy right after his first operation, but concedes that this was due to nothing more remarkable than a plain blue switch within convenient reach on his hospital bed: The switch released morphine. It’s the only time a monk is legally allowed to take any form of intoxicant. I was high JD confesses with an ironic grin.

While six months chemo following surgery was intensely exhausting, JD was, after a little rest, able to rebuild his strength thanks to a healthy Vedic diet (cooked by Mum) and some intensive yoga practice. So unstoppable was our monk in orange that he flew off to India and qualified as a yoga teacher. “I was feeling on top of the world” JD proclaims.

But the dreaded disease was stealthily taking hold of JD’s liver, making further surgical intervention necessary. “You know what my first thought was, when I heard the news?” he jokes. “It was…wow…this means more morphine time.” But, as someone who will not even partake of garlic and onions (*perceived hindrances to mental clarity), JD was, naturally, a little reluctant to go overboard on morphine. So how do you ‘grin and bear’ extreme discomfort while bravely endeavouring to limit your own intake of hospital-administered sedatives?

JD used breathing techniques to help deal with physical pain, while delving deep into mantra meditation to contain his mental anxiety. He steadfastly chanted the Hare Krishna maha mantra, those three transcendent and time-tested words that are said to contain mystical sound vibrations encased within a syllable.

By vibrating the maha mantra, you can see your consciousness elevating and transcending whatever situation you’re in” affirms JD.

MahaMantra

Sacred Words

However, after the sixth of eight further chemotherapy rounds, the condition had spread to his lungs, necessitating indefinite treatment subject to further test results.

Janakinath dasa knew that now, more than ever, was the time to draw deeply upon the wisdom of the East and put all that monk-training into full and practical effect. He employed universal principles gleaned from the Vedic scriptures (especially Bhagavad Gita) to deal with some of his relatively young life’s toughest challenges.

But whatever his scan results show, JD is determined to see every set-back as an adventure, opportunity for growth, and most importantly, a reason to give back to society.

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After yoga followed by a tasty filling vegan lunch, we are relaxed (and replete) enough to want to (preferably) do nothing more than slide safely back into that comfort zone, and chat with old (or maybe new-found) friends, but Psychologist Dev has other plans. He ushers us through some honest self-assessment on how we relate to others. We form groups to each in turn air concerns on any personal relationship that is currently troubling us. Our aim here is to be more present, to listen intently, and, in being objective (both towards others and ourselves), to start letting go of heavy emotional baggage. We fully take on board that liberating ourselves from the past is the only way forward (even if this is all a bit deep for a Saturday afternoon). Perhaps it’s Dev’s own searingly honest and heart-felt revelation about his relationship with his late father, or maybe it’s an all-round emotional release felt by everyone, that precipitates a few surfacing tears around the room – tears (by now probably) not of self-pity as such, but (quite possibly) of real true empathy.

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Spreading the Word – Janakinath dasa

So what really lies behind JD’s well-known smile?

S is for           SPIRITUALITY AND CONTRIBUTION

When he finished his monk-training, JD’s instructors stressed just how fortunate he was to have learned from great teachers, impressing upon him that he should now go forth and share that spiritual knowledge.

The Bhagavad Gita stipulates that one of the most efficient ways of training your mind is to engage it in helping others. JD saw that a great number of other cancer sufferers were simply not able to cope, and, eminently grateful for the care he had received, resolved to make better assistance available to some of those less fortunate.

M is for          MIND-SET AND HAPPINESS

The Bhagavad Gita explains that although the mind can be your best friend, it can also be your worst enemy, depending on which way you choose to focus it. “Whatever we do in life, however we perceive things and react depends on the state of our consciousness. The higher our consciousness, the more we are in tune with reality, the more we have access to real happiness, and, most importantly, we become immune to negativity” says JD.

I is for             IDENTITY AND NATURE

Our personalities and moral ideals are the amalgamated result of our upbringing, genetics, and cultural heritage. But regardless of our creed, belief system and social background, what career we follow and the language we speak, we are, in essence, ATMA (soul) and our true nature is to love and be loved. Cancer does not discriminate, and neither should our empathy and compassion.

L is for            LOVE AND RELATIONSHIPS

A major problem many cancer patients have to deal with is loneliness. And the people around you (or lack of them) affect the way you think and act. It is said that your mind-set is the result of your association with the five people closest to you, so you have to choose your nearest companions carefully. “I was fortunate in that I had great family, friends and support network.” JD confirms.

E is for            ENERGY AND WELLBEING

JD has invested a lot of his energy into tailoring customised wellbeing retreats that focus on mental and physical, social, emotional, and, (most significantly), spiritual aspects of human welfare. Proceeds are used to bring similar workshops shaped in a supportive environment to other cancer sufferers who would not otherwise be part of any caring, sharing or close-knit community.

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A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there is a caring, sharing person inside.

 Denis Waitley (American motivational speaker, writer and consultant)

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So today we’ve thoroughly examined the *L in SMILE (*Love and Relationships), and Dev assures us there’ll be follow-up workshops to expand upon the S, M, I, and, of course, let’s not forget that all-important E.

It’s time to say goodbye (for now) to that lightest and most ‘modern architectural’ of spiritual oases, Sri Krishna Haveli, and head back to the Grade II listed and sacred Mock Tudor familiarity of Bhaktivedanta Manor, where 73-year-old long-term devotee and mantra choir leader Jayadev dasa takes charge of us with all the verve and vigour of someone (at least!) 50 years younger. Not only does Jayadev, a prime percussionist, whip up a rhythmically melodic storm that irresistibly sweeps everyone along with it, but, within minutes, he has the musical novices among us singing like a professional chorus. It’s good to end this day-retreat on such a high.

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Always The Life and Soul – Jayadev dasa

Vicky Rochford of Hertfordshire said: “Today was a coming together with old friends and new, but by the end of the retreat it felt like many new friendships had been formed. Dev was a fantastic motivator who gave really thought-provoking insights and realisations on a deeper spiritual level. It’s a wonderful tribute to JD, whose infectious smile is the inspiration for such a worthy campaign to raise funds for a great cause.”

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Singing as One Voice

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We wish JD the best possible recovery from his recent lung-surgery and hope to see him back in action soon.

Just as there is no miracle molecule that reverses aging, there is no one wonder pill you can pop to prevent all forms of cancer.

But JD’s renowned smile is the simplest of miracles that he can recreate at any time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “S.M.I.L.E.

  1. I am very proud to say this blog was written by my dear friend Louise Guthrie who always writes with such intelligence and clarity. Louise covers every aspect of her experiences in a way that we can all relate to. Once again Louise you have written an interesting piece for those who attended the “SMILE” retreat and offers an insight for others who were unable to attend.

    Like

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