This summer at a local gurmat camp, I ran a workshop called “Who Am I?”
It consists of a role-playing exercise where I play the ignorant passerby asking the kids about who they are and what Sikhi is all about. The goal of this workshop is to come up with our own “elevator pitch” – concise yet thoughtful answers to some of the most common questions we’re asked.
No matter how many times I’ve facilitated this workshop, I’m always amazed at how little the campers are able to answer about very basic questions on Sikhi and Sikh practices. It doesn’t even matter what kind of camp – from those that follow the Rehat Maryada closely to those who do not – the results are much the same.
In one camp, when the kids were being particularly unresponsive, I veered off my lesson plan of “How we explain our Sikhi to Non-Sikhs“, and instead started asking the group of 15-17 years olds about themselves.
What kept them as Sikhs?
What made them want to follow the Guru’s path?
Why did they keep their Kesh and Sikhi identity?
Surprisingly, there were still few answers. In every group, there’s always one or two who raise their hands and say all the “right things” and perhaps one or two brave souls who object and say, for example, that keeping their kesh is no longer necessary, and, for that matter, neither is organized religion. Even this perspective I respect because at least they are thinking, reasoning, and vocalizing their opinions. I’m not really concerned about either end of this spectrum, but what does worry me is the vast majority in the middle who appear to be, well…indifferent.
Out of a little frustration, I finally picked one kid in the back – a fifteen year old boy wearing a patka and asked him directly: “Tell me, why do you keep your kesh?”
After a short pause, he looked back at me and said, “To be honest, I really have no idea.”
I feel my parent’s generation did the best they could raising Sikh youth in a land and culture different than their own. As a child growing up on the East Coast of the U.S., I was blessed with opportunities to go to Sikh camps. I loved going to camp and being around people who looked like me and shared my struggles. I have fond memories of gathering around the camp fire with all my friends and shouting jakaaray until we lost our voices – I was inspired…but I’m not sure why.
I grew up participating in kirtan competitions, speech competitions, paatth competitions, and I constantly had the company of Sikh friends, but even in all this…there was still something missing.
Sometimes I look back at all the people I competed with in kirtan competitions, and those who shouted jakaaray along with me at camp…most of them aren’t Sikhs anymore. Perhaps they felt something missing too.
As many of us grow out of adolescence – start to think for ourselves and get exposed to ideas, opinions, and thoughts that we never knew existed – our beliefs get challenged, and it takes a little more than jakaaray and first place trophies to keep us rooted in our Sikhi. Much of that external stuff eventually fades away, and we’re forced to look within.
Although the cause of our current state is still a bit elusive to me, the solution however, is crystal clear. Whereas my training in Sikhi was largely external – keep your kesh, be proud of your history, and one day you may grow up into a Sikh who reads and reflects on gurbani – essentially, growing Sikhi “outside-in.”
I believe the answer is to start with bani – day one, and grow Sikhi “inside out.”
I’m convinced that fostering a gurbani-based environment at our camps, Khalsa schools, Sikh Student Associations, and, most importantly, our homes, is the best way to engage with the next generation of Sikhs, so that they can individually and collectively create connections with the Guru.
So maybe this means that the SSA substitutes one if it’s monthly meetings for Gurbani Vichaar, or our camps and Khalsa schools build their lesson plans on reflective exercises around a shabad, and perhaps as we put our sons and daughters to bed every night, we help them find strength and courage in a shabad in the same way they do with a saakhi.
By cultivating that inner relationship with the Guru – through shabad, simran and reflection – I believe the external aspects of Sikhi will fall into place. We will then always be fulfilled and our questions will always be answered.
A friend once said to me, if we want to see our reflection in the lake, the water must first be still.
May Guru Sahib bring that stillness in our lives, so that we can realize who we really are.
October 11th, 2010 at 5:17 pm
Thanks a lot for sharing this. It is so so relevant all over. I've had such experiences too in the camps here in Malaysia.. and have been thinking of a 'solution'. Shabad, simran, reflection. Fateh!Tarsem Singh,Malaysia
October 14th, 2010 at 3:40 am
Thanks for your comment, Tarsem Singh…I had a feeling we here in North America were not alone in experiencing this. I'd love to hear any creative ideas you might have in introducing Gurbani to children at camps in Malaysia. Guru Fateh!
October 21st, 2010 at 9:44 pm
Veerji, reading this post I felt like you took all the feelings inside of me and expressed them in the most eloquent and honorable way that I could not have ever even come close to expressing. Your words contain no ill-will or negativity, and that itself is quite impressive considering what a lot of these experiences do to our spirit.Your words are not a negative criticism of what has been and is going on, but an optimistic desire for change towards a connection with Shabad Guru.May Guru grace us with a chardi-kala like yours.Gurfateh!
September 23rd, 2011 at 10:35 pm
"By cultivating that inner relationship with the Guru – through shabad, simran and reflection – I believe the external aspects of Sikhi will fall into place. "lovelovelovelovelove
September 24th, 2011 at 2:56 am
Or is it the other way around? The outer aspects of Sikhi make us see our own reflection within because the outer aspect was decided long before we were able to take a glimpse inside about ourselves. One can only see the reflection of the self in a still lake provided the inner light is shone.In darkness, nothing can be realised. Hence,Shabad becomes the lamp post under which the stories of lives are recounted and shared.