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Weekly Blog

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tales from Karma Kitchen

Last Sunday, a team of 9 Stanford students headed to serve at the magical Karma Kitchen in Berkeley. Pavi Mehta, lead coordinator of Karma Kitchen that week, wrote in the following:
There were nine of you, fired up and ready to go when Viral and I arrived just after nine on Sunday. The largest set-up crew we've ever had, arguably the most sincere and most definitely the only crew that's arrived carrying its own meditation cushions :) We zipped through readying the space and settled into a circle of silence --- still strangers at this point (we hadn't done intros yet), but when we opened our eyes at the end of that period, a quiet bond had already been forged.

Susan set the tone for the day, sharing the story of her eighty-something year old mother in Alaska, who without a moments hesitation had gifted a small fortune so that a man on the street with frostbite could save his leg. Connecting that spirit of unconditional giving with Karma Kitchen she gave gratitude for the space. Over the next six hours we would each attempt to keep that flame of generosity burning bright.

Incidentally we broke an interesting KK record this Sunday --- for the highest number of Stanford grad students serving tables, washing dishes, busing tables and plating food :) You guys rocked! And the stories that came from the day were special.

The Nicest Person I Meet
Gopal who saw a guest "doodling" on a piece of paper at her table, later discovered that doodle to be a flawless piece of art that she gifted to him. He decided to pay-it-forward, to a nine-year-old boy who was scribbling an uncomplimentary note at his table :) "Look what he's writing," says his mother, "are you sure you want to give him this?" Replies Gopal, "I was just given this picture and decided I would give it away to the nicest person I met today. And yes I'd still like to give it to him." The child received the gift, quickly discarded his not-nice-note and substituted it with the more benign drawing of a ship :)

Pudding of Heaven
Earlier in the circle MJ talked of the power of transformation that comes alive at Karma Kitchen --- those moments come in surprisingly humble ways -- like Chinmay's experience with a guest who had repeatedly refused his offer of rice pudding and then shared with him the story of a saint in the marketplace who was handing out flowers to passerbys. As the story goes, people hurried past him, either too suspicious, arrogant or preoccupied to receive his offering. And as the story goes, if any man or woman had stopped that day to receive the unconditional gift in front of them, he or she would have entered the gates of heaven. "Your offers of pudding and my refusals remind me of this story," says the guest laughing. And now the Pudding of Heaven might just be the new name of our dessert and a great lesson in learning how to truly receive :)

The Tipping Point
So many other stories from the day. A table of four who come for the first time and are touched to discover that you can't tip your server at Karma Kitchen. Volunteers who slip into whatever role is needed of them, including making the naan (thank you MJ and Jazz!). Offerings of homemade Sauerkraut, homegrown oranges and a giant persimmon that appear on the Kindness Table, the serendipity of a volunteer who finds herself serving her grown up daughter's grade school music teacher, the unexpected delightof a first-time plater (Kranthi) who served up a steady stream of dishes to reflect smilingly at the resulting feeling of glowing satisfaction, "as if I'd cooked the entire meal myself!" ...

Thank you all for your presence at Karma Kitchen this Sunday. It was a real joy to serve together and we hope to have you with us again on a future week. Sign up for volunteering will be online as usual. Attached is the crew photo. Snippets from the notes people shared will be posted later this week on the story section of the Karma Kitchen website.

Some more volunteer reflections:

Chinmay: The first thing that came to my mind about volunteering in Karma Kitchen was - "free food". I'm certainly not proud of this, but its an honest fact about the expectations of a typical grad student. As it turns out, there's something better than excellent, Indian free food that I brought home with me that day.

After the stressful midterms this day came like a savior. It was an early Sunday morning when we headed down to Berkely (No affinity intended, Beat Cal !!!). The atmosphere at Karma kitchen was exciting. I am grateful for the opportunity to meditate before we started working. I found it calming but instilling this positive energy in you at the same time. Everyone settled immediately into their volunteer roles with an amazing sense of coordination, thanks to our inspiring leaders Viral and Pavi and the KK veterans - MJ, Jazz and "gentle Susan" (I hope I got the spelling right). Viral and Pavi I must say did an excellent job in turning a bunch of amateurs into a seemingly well organized crew.

Then came the customers ! I could recall each one of the faces I saw on that day. I couldn't tell when it stopped being a restaurant and started to feel more like somebody's living room as Viral accurately described (during orientation). I was taken aback by the courtesy that these people were showing me. I was like - isn't that my job ! Serendipity was in the air. You could notice the twinkle in people's eyes when they saw the gifts being given to them. I think the "pay it forward" thing went from being a concept to realization in a matter of hours. (If only this applied to my experiments ! damn). I actually saw people forget that delicious food, which is very difficult to do and share stuff, stories (pudding of heaven), fruits, drawings with people they've just met.

If only karma kitchen served the world!

It was a genuinely happy experience for me. I loved working with all the guys volunteering there. I absolutely adore Viral and Pavi for this unconditional act of generosity that they perform so tirelessly. I think I've received a greater sense of satisfaction as compared to the efforts that I put in. I am definitely game for another day at the Karma Kitchen.
Somik: I am grateful for the opportunity to serve at KK. By meditating in a group for 20 minutes before we started, things had really slowed down for me, and although a lot of activity was going on around, I felt relaxed. Seeing a smile on the lips of patrons was special. There was one elderly gentleman who sat at a table intently poring over his book. As I walked over to give him his check, he looked up and asked if I knew that we are free. I nodded (and wished that I could be more aware of it). He asked me if my grandmother had told me that. I nodded again. And he cracked up with a big smile as he talked about the value of grandparents. And right there, in that moment, he felt like my grandfather. He told me about his life, how he'd drive taxis in Alaska for some part of the year, and study metaphysics in Berkeley for the other part, and how he didn't think it was worth the trouble to rent an apartment like other people. He lived in his van, and took his showers in the public restrooms, happy and free, studying metaphysics. And there he was at Karma Kitchen, starting a metaphysical conversation with great love!