The Karma of Travel
Volunteering and living in India have taught Kiva Bottero the contentment that comes from working with your hands, living a simple life and accepting what is.
With our spades we diligently chipped away at the rocky soil under the blazing heat of the Colorado sun. A wise mentor and co-worker named Soma casually mentioned that the majority of the world works with their hands. It’s a good way to connect, he said. That stuck with me.
Previously in my life, I’d always had “knowledge” jobs. This shovel-work was quite a departure, but a welcome one. At the time I was “travel-living” at a spiritual community called Sunrise Ranch. One small shovelful at a time, I experienced the meaning of this type of work so common to communities such as this.
Karma yoga, seva, selfless service. It goes by different names in different communities, but the basic meaning is the same—to work without regard for personal desires and to not get attached to your work, regardless of the outcome. It’s an approach to work that purifies the mind by burning off the likes and dislikes so common in the western world of excessive choice.
Life in these communities is based on voluntary simplicity. Since most communitarians don’t work for pay or only for a small stipend, they live simply, but in a good way. Living in the country without the non-stop stream of ads that create a push-pull drama of desire and aversion makes it easier to accept life as it is and allow the underlying peace to float to the surface of our consciousness.
From the spiritual communities of North America, I went to the 1.2 billion-strong community of India. Here I have been experiencing simple living of a different sort—involuntary simplicity. In these parts, simple living doesn’t usually come from an intention to strip the superfluities out of life and connect to nature and truth, but from the harsh reality of poverty. And it is in that poverty that the majority of humanity toils. With their hands.
While walking the streets of India, I see construction crews digging away at mounds of gravel and carrying piles of bricks on top of their heads in the sweltering heat. As I ride buses packed with people hanging off the sides and clinging on top of the roof, I watch elderly people standing in the midst of the mayhem swaying from side to side and bouncing up and down on hairpin-bendy rocky roads, seemingly without any discomfort. Every day I see the same woman sitting by the side of the same piece of dusty road, begging for pennies with a smile.
It is that smile that separates suffering from joy and connects one human to another. With poverty a way of life in this part of the world, many have come to embrace their situation in life with equanimity, a calm acceptance of what is. Rather than struggle against what is going on, always seeking more and better in a never-ending cycle of desire, through acceptance, life can become a joy despite the circumstances.
Some do have issues with their position in life, especially after seeing the extreme wealth that tourists possess. But when the real concern is whether or not food will be on the table that night, luxuries like cars and gadgets lose their meaning. There is less to actually desire than in the West. And there’s less point to trying to avoid the “difficulties” because there are so many of them. Acceptance is, therefore, a way of life.
I’ve gained much respect for the people here and their ability to accept the “good” and the “bad.” Trivialities such as “it’s raining so I can’t go outside” or “there’s no sugar for my tea so I can’t drink it” don’t even register. What comes, comes. It’s raining, accept it. There’s no sugar, accept it. Rather than getting bothered by such small things, I find people who come from less material cultures spend more time enjoying what is—rather than complaining about what’s not.
After all, if you get into the habit of looking for what’s wrong, you’ll always find something. Saving that time complaining about difficulties or worrying about problems naturally opens people up to gratitude for the things they do have. Despite the toil and grind of a difficult life, in these traditional cultures the people have found a balance that comes from equanimity and gratitude.
Though I’ve moved back to a so-called knowledge job, I don’t feel any wiser than when I was digging trenches. Instead of connecting with humanity through my hands, I now connect by riding the same buses as them, living in the same homes and eating and going to the bathroom the same way. Simplicity as a way of life has helped bring me back to actual reality—not the reality of western excess, but the reality of simplicity that the vast majority of the world lives with.