By Sonya Rehman
In Lahore, Avari Hotel’s third floor is abuzz. Volunteers and members of the ‘Art of Living Foundation’ (the Lahore chapter) are fluttering about. All clad in white shalwar kameezes, they walk in and out of the lobby in an excited haze of ivory. It is infectious. The renowned spiritual guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is in Pakistan for a three-day peace visit (12th-14th March, 2012) and his itinerary is chock-a-block full with talks, interviews with the media, and travel plans for Islamabad and Karachi as soon as his commitments in Lahore are speedily wrapped up.
A social activist who travels extensively to spread peace and tolerance, Shankar has been actively involved in disaster and trauma relief, poverty alleviation, female empowerment, peace negotiations in conflict zones the world over, child labour, etc. The ambassador of peace has also been actively involved in talks and peace negotiations with world leaders, in addition to conducting extensive trauma relief camps in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Jammu & Kashmir, and Kosovo.
Established in 1981, Shankar’s Art of Living NGO is present in over 140 countries and works in consultancy with the ‘Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)’ of the UN.
Shankar is in Lahore for the first time. But he visited the capital a few years ago, in 2004 when the Art of Living in Pakistan began gaining momentum.
After a half hour wait, I am escorted to a small lounge area where cameramen are packing up their equipment as Shankar walks in and smiles. He’s obviously exhausted – having arrived in Lahore through the Wagah Border at 6:00am – he has been on the go ever since. And now, after he’s done with the media, Shankar’s due to meet Art of Living members at a reception at the Royal Palm Golf & Country Club at 8:00pm.
He’s a slight man. Dressed in a white robe of sorts, his long, jet-black hair is left loose behind his back.
“I think there’s such a natural bonding between the two countries – between the people of the two countries,” Shankar states softly when asked about his experience so far. “I feel that all this separation that’s created between both countries is mainly artificial. It’s not very natural. When the youth realizes that we’re all one, there could be more harmony, creativity and a cultural exchange, a technological exchange, economic cooperation. A lot can happen between India and Pakistan.”
The six-day Art of Living course (roughly a little over two hours per day) is known primarily for an intense breathing technique known as the ‘Sudarshan Kriya.’
This breathing technique is said to assuage depression, strengthen the immune system, and lead to an increase in awareness among other benefits on a physical, spiritual and emotional level.
“I would say just try it once,” Shankar says when asked how the course could benefit newbies, “It can only enhance the energy and enthusiasm in you – it makes you happier and you learn the tools to handle your own mind. See neither at school nor at home, nobody teaches you how to handle your thoughts when you’re upset, angry or depressed. The course teaches you how to handle your emotions and negative feelings and you’ll begin to enjoy being in control of your own life.”
Stating that the whole course is “geared to bring clarity to one’s mind,” Shankar emphasizes that the Art of Living exercises train the mind to “see things differently.”
“We’re all born with a gut feeling and intuition,” he states, “But we don’t use it at all, [the course] helps you to unlock your intuition – that energy centre inside you.”
For manifesting wants and desires in one’s life, Shankar mentions that one needs to have “strong intentions” first – intentions which are pure and good. “You have the power to be intuitive and to intend what you want to do.”
Earlier in the day, prior to his arrival at the hotel, Shankar visited the local, Forman Christian College (FCC) for a talk with over 800 students. “It was amazing,” gushed Zarmina Durrani, an Art of Living volunteer that I spoke with in the lobby straight after my interview with Shankar.
Currently working with a local PR company, Durrani stated; “One of the [FCC] students told Shankar that a girl he loved had left him. Shankar responded that there were six billion people on the planet and that the boy would find someone else. He said if somebody can’t see the purity and beauty of your heart, then they’re not for you. Everyone started clapping. The kids were transfixed; they didn’t want him to go. The energy of that hall!”
A young HR professional, Irfan Mahmood, who enrolled in an Art of Living course late last year said that his experience was great. “There is something about this course which can change a person’s life,” Mahmood said, “I’m a very sensitive and aggressive person by nature and have always taken undue pressure on myself. After the course I decided that my motto would be to simply live and let others live. This is the mission statement of my life now.”
It’s almost 8:00pm and the crowd in the lobby is thinning out. Volunteers have begun to leave the hotel for Shankar’s reception at Royal Palm.
On location, malangs are dancing and spinning to the beat of the dhol. Shankar soon arrives, garlanded at the entrance as he walks in, greeting scores of Art of Living members and volunteers.
He steps onto a raised platform in the hall, near a couch where he is to sit.
There isn’t a trace of clouds or rain in the air tonight. But over an hour into the reception, while we begin a guided meditation with Shankar, it begins raining and thundering outside.
Whether or not you’re a believer or a skeptic, it doesn’t matter. The atmosphere in the hall is tranquil and spiritual as it continues raining well into the night.