Meet Two Deer Park Friends — Samir K and Pallavi Deshmukh
On a beautiful Sunday morning, KF invited Deer Park friends Samir K and Pallavi Deshmukh to share how Deer Park changed their lives—over a Zoom call, of course. The meeting was warm and cheerful, and we found their personal stories heart-touching and inspiring.
Samir K: Deer Park Is a Magical Place
KF: When did you first come to Deer Park? How did the journey start?
I had been living in Delhi. I first came to Deer Park in December 2016 to attend a retreat a friend had introduced me to. I didn’t know much about Buddhism at the time. I stayed on for a few days at Deer Park after the retreat, liked the environment and the people here very much. Six months later, I found myself at a bit of dead end in my work, life, and relationships, lacking direction. Basically, I was unhappy with myself, was looking for change but didn’t quite know how to define that change. I wanted to explore, but how? One thing that kept coming back to me, that I was searching for a place that offered peace and quiet but also provided a community for support. My whole experience of Deer Park was still fresh; and so, in May 2017, I found myself back in Bir.
I am not a spiritual practitioner in the traditional sense of the word. Spiritual more in thought and action, without religious leanings. I believe in spirituality as practiced in day-to-day life, and I wanted to be in this place and to stay connected with spiritual practices. That’s how my journey began.
KF: What happened next?
I came to Deer Park without clear direction. For the first year, I was leaning on Deer Park for emotional support, spiritual support. There is something calming about the place – the morning meditation practice at Buddha Hall helped me attain peace of mind and get me ready to face the day. Another nice thing was to be in the dining hall and connect with people from around the world – that was before the lockdown– exchanging views with people about what brought them here, about their life stories, and of course some banter as well. Especially during the winter months, sitting on the lawn soaking in the sun. I have heard this said often, and I have definitely experienced it — Deer Park is a blessed and magical space. What makes it magical? The sunsets, the rainbows, double rainbows, all those add to the beauty of the place. But it’s really the community here that makes it magical. And so my journey continued pretty much in this vein for the next couple of years. I was finding my roots in the community here. I found myself a space that I made into a more permanent home.
I also engage with Deer Park in ways that are personal to me. Here, I need to share that in the past, I have had to deal with drug and substance abuse issues. That was a prime reason I came in search of inner peace. For a couple of decades before arriving at the gates of Deer Park, I had been following another spiritual program, the Twelve Steps recovery program. To me that program has been lifesaving. Since I got a second chance at life, I felt that it could also be useful to others. And so a couple of us Twelve Step members initiated meetings at Bir, using Deer Park as the facilitating space. In the larger community of Bir, there are unfortunately many with a similar problem. It’s disheartening to see young people from local Tibetan and Himachali communities fall prey to addiction.
The managers of Deer Park, Prashant and Diwan Ji, were very gracious, taking time to understand how our program works and how in the context of the community it could bring benefit all around. And so we started to conduct our meetings here at Deer Park. That was about two and a half years ago. Thanks to the support we continue to receive from Deer Park, these meetings have become a weekly practice.
I have to say that for me personally, this has been very, very important. It has also helped others in the community who came seeking support, to take control of their lives. Many of us are people without direction, who had lost our way. To find healing, to find acceptance in the community, to be able to work on ourselves and to become productive members of our society, for us, and for me, is a very big step.
I don’t differentiate between spiritual practices, whatever label one gives it, Buddhism or Hinduism or anything else. Spiritual practices are intertwined. It needs to mean the same to me, it has to work for me, and I hesitate to label it. If a practice makes me a better human being, if it makes me of service to the community, then there is value in it. For me, there is another strong affiliation between Buddhist practice and the Twelve Step program. Buddhism outlines the Buddha, dharma, and sangha as its pillars. In the Twelve Step practice, we emphasize a Higher Power (Buddha to us), the steps (that’s our dharma), and the fellowship of recovering addicts (the sangha, or community). This for me has become a very strong connect, a bridge that extends my faith across both of these practices.
I have been able to reclaim my life. This affects not just me, but also a larger community around me – my wife and son, my immediate family – and also the wider community. Change is taking place. Even if one person’s life is affected, it’s worth it. I speak for myself, but I think this idea applies to others as well. A similar teaching is given in many of the programs I have attended at Deer Park, such as the dathūn (vassa in Pali). In the Buddhist tradition, the rainy season dathün is a one-month retreat program in the summertime. The values we study are to become better human beings, to work on ourselves, and to benefit other beings. I see that Buddhist values are very open, transparent, and liberating. In a world that is very divided owing to opposing religious and political viewpoints, Buddhism is about being authentic. It is a program of action. It teaches principles that benefit oneself. It benefits society. And it encourages the application of wisdom to decide what to do, not what the scripture tells you.
KF: How does your future look? You like to cook, don’t you?
Over the past year, my family has joined me here in Bir. It’s just so peaceful here; for us, Deer Park is home. I might be a terrible meditator, but I find a lot of calm and meditation in cooking. It is a very immersive experience for me. The outcome of the cooking depends on how centered I am at the time. The first time I received the opportunity to cook for the community at Deer Park, for a group of 24 people, I was like, I can’t handle this. Luckily, and with the help of the able kitchen staff, we managed that one well enough. The next time was a community dinner, this was on New Year’s eve of 2020 (going into 2021), and that was for 54 people! It surely feels nice to get to do this and be of service to others, to spread happiness. People bond over meals. I once received the opportunity to cook for Rinpoche at a limited get-together at Deer Park. He was polite and said he enjoyed the meal. Cooking gives me great satisfaction, it adds to my confidence. This for me is spirituality in practice. I will continue to cherish these experiences for a long, long time.
KF: Any final comment?
Yes, it is very heart-warming to receive this opportunity, to talk about how the Twelve Steps have been transformative in my life. Equally important is my journey of coming to Bir and staying in proximity to the Deer Park sangha. I see that reflected in my day-to-day relationships, especially at home. My family tells me I am a much more pleasant and nicer person; I’d like to believe them. All credit to Deer Park, it really is a wonderful space.
Pallavi Deshmukh: Rebirth in the Foothills of the Himalayas
KF: Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Pallavi: My parents are from East Maharashtra, but I was born in Goa because of my father’s job. For the first 11 years of my life I was in Goa. Then I went to Bombay and was raised there. I went to school, college, in Bombay including the 14 years of career in marketing communications, working in PR agencies and media and entertainment companies.
That was quite a journey, but I found it not so fulfilling and decided to quit and find something else. Through networks and meeting different people in different settings I came across people who had done something similar in the field of creative arts therapy. After much pondering about why I’d want to choose this field, I decided to begin my journey in creative arts therapy. I enrolled in Diploma in Dance/Movement Therapy, a program with CMTAI (Creative Therapy Association of India) and Pune University in Artsphere, Pune. I spent 2 years in in the program, until 2021, also getting professional qualifications in Visual Arts Therapy and Psychodrama, and a 2-year Advanced Diploma in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy with Buddhism as the foundational orientation.
KF: How did you find Deer Park?
Rewinding to 2017, I got to know about Dharamshala and Bir from my younger sister, who showed me pictures and told me wonderful things about both these places. I loved hearing about the people, nature, the majestic, magical mountains, shops playing OM MANI PADME HUM. I’m not someone who usually makes impulsive decisions, especially about something like a tattoo, but I got the mantra inked on my arm. Of course I did feel like a wannabe many times, but it was too late to regret, and the tattoo fellow did a brilliant job anyway! I turned into a vegetarian overnight in the last week of December 2017, for strong reasons, like the documentaries on Netflix and Instagram posts about the atrocities to animals. I was planning to quit my job and take a break anyway, so I decided to take the leap of doing that amidst mountains. Being a water body person, this was a big deal and quite a significant choice at that time.
I came to Bir in February 2018. My sister already resided there with a friend. On the second day, she showed me around and took me to Deer Park. I was completely awed by Bir, the mountains. I was like, this is it. I always aspired to spend much time of my life in the countryside amidst nature. Later, when I shared my story with friends, they all said that “it seems like 2018 was a turning point in many ways”.
Anyway, I found a place to stay and I went to do things like trekking and exploring life here in the mountains. In early March I went to Deer Park again and Pravin, Deer Park admin manager, mentioned a teaching by the founder of Deer Park. I speculated that the founder of this place must be so special, as the place itself is so special in a way that I couldn’t describe in words. So limited was my understanding of Rinpoche, at that time! I was born into a Hindu family culturally, but I never associated with it deeply. I can take a little liberty here to say that most of my Hindu friends don’t have a strong connection either, we are just culturally born to it. So I was like, why not, Buddhism, completely new, worth exploring and attending the teaching.
I came back to Bir from mountain trekking just one day before the Hinamudra teaching. I went to the teaching that morning and I saw Rinpoche for the first time. I was very curious, who was he? His maroon robe… I couldn’t see him from where I was sitting, because I arrived a little late. I went back that afternoon and the next three days, arriving 45 minutes early to get a seat directly in his line of vision. (wanting him to be able to see me among the hundreds of avid students, sigh!) I took notes diligently every morning and afternoon, . On the afternoon of the second day, I realized that I was hearing the most undogmatic, liberal thing; it was so wonderful.
At the end of the fourth day, I took refuge. Then the real journey began. I read Rinpoche’s books and listened to his teachings during my stay in Bir and continued to do so. I joined the dathūn program that year in July-August, led by students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. I dived into the one-month full program. Around October 2018 I began online study of the Bodhicharyavatara, led by Arne Schelling.
Meanwhile, my curiosity about the concept of the guru in Tibetan Buddhism grew and became more a part of my journey. I had never quite liked the idea of the guru until I read The Guru Drinks Bourbon? The question remained, Is he my potential guru — or rather, will he accept me as his student? In November 2018 I went to Bodhgaya for the monlam (prayer festival) and Siddhartha Festival. Toward the end of the festival, I thought, This is it, it’s now or never. My heart was in my mouth. That night, Rinpoche was watching a performance in the front row during the Siddhartha Festival. After 15 minutes of going back and forth, nervous, excited, I went up to him and told him a little of my background and asked him the big Q!. The rest is history, a significant milestone in my life. The journey continues.
In 2019, I joined the dathūn at Deer Park again, as a participant and volunteer. In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I visited Deer Park, for a break, in November, and here I am, completing a full year stay at Deer Park, no plans whatsoever at the outset. Couldn’t have been a more magical place to explore all that came along, being able to participate in study groups and practices, came upon new ideas and continued my online practice as an independent creative art therapy practitioner as and when opportunities came by.
KF: What is Deer Park life for you now?
During my stay in Deer Park, I conducted different formats of creative art therapy workshops, such as drop-in, long, and medium formats, attended by more than 50 participants from all age groups and diverse backgrounds, both personal and professional. For facilitators like myself, it’s beautiful to actually conduct the workshops at a physical space here at Deer Park. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Designing workshops around topics relevant to difficult times was inevitable and also helpful to me as a facilitator. Emotional, mental, and physical well-being were the overarching therapeutic goals. Every workshop brought great experiences and new connections.
In October, Shambhala Art: Coming to Your Senses,, as a collective idea, in consensus, we conducted a workshop, a hybrid model, with Dr. Elaine Yuen, a senior student in the Shambhala tradition. While Elaine dialed in from Philadelphia, I was at Deer Park to assist as a co-facilitator in person.
Recently at a 7-day retreat, Educating the Heart. Cultivating the Relationships we need to Thrive, led by Kabir Saxena, I got an opportunity, thanks to Kabir Saxena and Prashant’s interest to explore the experiential aspect of the teachings through a mix of creative arts using movement, role play, visual arts, guided meditation, expressive writing, also nature as the muse.
I also want to share that during the pandemic, Deer Park did everything to keep guests engaged in a wide range of fun and entertainment, including the food menu, diverse workshops, and setting up a badminton court. We residents never felt much urge to step out during the lockdown time. A wonderful community circle of listening to people’s life journeys was one of the community initiatives that began during the pandemic and stilll continues. I experienced a true sense of community and connectedness with different people from diverse backgrounds.
KF: What you are doing is very much in line with what Rinpoche has been telling us about being resilient, to have joyful dharma, and to reach a wider audience.
Yes, it’s my aspiration to work with KF, SI, and Rinpoche closely also individually and via like-minded, interested collaborators. Right now, I’m focusing on bringing Buddhadharma to the larger community. Working with other organizations and friends of mine, I facilitate workshops online that bring Buddhist philosophy concepts together with expressive arts. I have experimented with various Buddhist concepts, endeavouring to dig deep and bring them alive through the therapeutic value of expressive arts using movement, visual arts, writing, music, and other art modalities. My friends and I are coming up with a short experimental course to bring Buddhist philosophy together with expressive arts.
KF: What does your future look like?
Continue to engage in dharma, as a practitioner and student, with bigger aspirations. Given my background as a creative arts therapy practitioner who is following the dharma, I aspire to integrate and bring alive Buddhadharma through the expressive arts in a way that is palatable and relatable to everyone’s daily life. In my own practise as a creative arts therapy practitioner, I’m already working with different populations in diverse settings. I’m also hoping to and open to contribute to extend dharma in several different ways along the way in the months and years to come.